Medical students help soothe farmworkers on 300-mile trek

Volunteers provide relief by treating blisters and achy feet of marchers walking to Sacramento

(SACRAMENTO)

UC Davis medical students are providing much-needed pain relief to farmworkers and their supporters this week on the final segments of a 335-mile march to Sacramento. 

About 15 students met up with the marchers in the Delta town of Walnut Grove on Tuesday to offer foot care. They treated blisters, bandaged wounds and helped soothe aching soles with buckets of cold water and Epsom salt. 

Their volunteerism is a prime opportunity for students eager to explore two of their greatest passions – supporting a social justice cause and offering up their nascent health care skills. 

“The UC Davis School of Medicine really empowers us to be future physicians that want to help our community members,” said Ferheen Abbasi, the second-year student who coordinated the volunteers.

“We have a lot of experience in the classroom but not as much experience being out here with our community members providing the care we can,” she added. 

The marchers are affiliated with the United Farm Workers (UFW) labor union. They are on a 24-day trek from Delano in Kern County to the state Capitol. Their goal is to raise awareness of legislation pending before Gov. Gavin Newsom, which would make it easier for farmworkers to vote for union representation. 

Six medical students provide foot care to three men at a picnic table after walking 15 miles during a march for farmworkers
School of Medicine students provide foot care for United Farm Workers marchers in Walnut Grove

When Abbasi first learned the marchers would be headed toward Sacramento, she contacted UFW leaders to ask if medical students could provide foot care and basic first aid during the final days of the march. 

She then put out a call for student volunteers – 30 signed up immediately. She also received cash donations as well as medical supplies from Second Breath, an organization run by UC Davis School of Medicine students that works to find a use for excess supplies. 

On Tuesday afternoon, when students would normally be studying for midterms on gastrointestinal diseases, they took their place in parallel lines of a human tunnel at Dr. Paul Barnes Community Park, two blocks from the Sacramento River. Dozens of marchers walked through the tunnel, receiving high fives from students, and singing the folk anthem, “De Colores,” which was popularized during the union’s marches in the 1960s. 

After the marchers ate lunch, the students went into action, asking if they needed first aid. 

Treating blisters the size of grapes

Many of the marchers removed their socks to show blisters as large as grapes. Others got their ankles taped and received foot massages. They were thrilled to place their bare feet in buckets of cold water and Epsom salt prepared by the students. 

“I feel such relief to put my feet in the water because we have blisters, our feet are swollen and the Epsom salt is super refreshing,” said Veronica Mota, a farmworker for 22 years. “This helps us to relax our nerves and muscles and gives us energy to keep going.”

The students, mostly in their second year of medical school, appreciated the hands-on learning opportunity.

Lately they’ve been taking an endocrine course that teaches how diabetes causes peripheral neuropathy. “And one of the marchers had diabetes so we wanted to make sure we treated his feet as well as possible, via massages to increase blood flow,” said Abbasi, the volunteer coordinator who also is copresident for the Class of 2025.

“As future doctors, we are going to have to care for the community in California, especially under the mission of our medical school – we want to provide support to the communities that need us,” said Julio Silieazar, a volunteer who aspires to be a surgeon and is a leader with the UC Davis student-run free clinic in Knights Landing. 

“This is what rejuvenates me,” said Juliana “Julie” Novaes, who shuttled medical supplies from marcher to marcher at the park. This experience was the first time she’s cared for patients since starting medical school last month.

“I hope to be able to work with farm-working populations in the future and Spanish-speaking communities in California,” she said, “so it’s really great to get this first-hand experience right now before I even become a doctor.”

Students will continue to provide aid to the marchers on Wednesday in Elk Grove, and Thursday in Sacramento.

On Friday, some will attend the farmworker rally at the state Capitol, where the UFW is expecting 5,000 supporters.

Anyone interested in donating supplies or money can contact Abbasi at ferabbasi@ucdavis.edu

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