Francisco J. Ronquillo, speaking Spanish, answers questions from his small but attentive class – three women and a man, Hispanics in their 60s and 70s, each sitting at a computer.
“We have been talking about depression and that one of the keys to making people feel better is a good diet,” Ronquillo explains to a visitor.
It’s a recent Monday morning and Ronquillo is teaching a Spanish computer health literacy class for seniors at the South Valley Multipurpose Senior Center. The goal is to teach Spanish-speaking seniors how to use a computer to learn about healthy diets and find answers to other medical questions.
“I try to bring the medical terms to common language,” Ronquillo says. “The idea is for (the students) to pass their knowledge on to others, their families and members of their community.”
Two of Ronquillo’s students have computers. Two don’t but can get online at the senior center or at public libraries.
“I learn about diseases; how to treat yourself; how to eat healthy, depending upon your conditions,” says Magdalena Gaytán, 68. “I share it with my family and friends. If they ask me something I don’t know, I ask my instructor.”
Jose Ortega, 76, says the class has enabled him to find answers to questions about the heart, knees, cramps and prescriptions – especially about prescriptions.
“My house is like a drug store,” he says.
Although Ronquillo’s office is at the senior center, a Bernalillo County facility, he is a University of New Mexico employee. Educated as a physician assistant at UNM, he works for Health Extension Rural Offices (HEROs), a UNM Health Sciences Center effort developed 12 years ago by Dr. Arthur Kaufman, director of UNM’s Office of Community Health, and members of the community health leadership staff.
HERO agents, or officers, such as Ronquillo, 49, live in the communities they serve, help identify health and social needs in those communities and try to meet those needs with university resources. Ronquillo, a HERO for almost 10 years, is responsible for Albuquerque’s South Valley.
“We are making linkages between the communities and the university,” he said.
HEROs is modeled on the agriculture Cooperative Extension Service, housed in land-grant universities, such as New Mexico State, throughout the United States.
“NMSU is everywhere,” Ronquillo said. “They have extension agents in every county. But people told us we should call ourselves the University of Albuquerque rather than the University of New Mexico. They told us that our (health) programs were more about what the university was interested in than about what the community needed.”
To fix that, UNM set about exploring what communities really needed. Kaufman said the university discovered that the biggest impacts on health were factors such as housing, education, transportation, nutrition, social inclusion and income. If people do not eat properly or live in safe and clean homes, for example, they are more likely to get sick. If they get sick but lack transportation, they can’t get to the care they need.
Since these factors differ in degree from one location to another, Kaufman and his colleagues devised HEROs as a means of putting health-care agents on the ground around the state, just as NMSU does with agriculture agents.
“We visited New Mexico State and got a course in Cooperative Extension 101,” Kaufman said.
Paid for by funding from UNM, endowments, individual counties, service contracts and grants, HEROs now has nine officers working in Albuquerque, Lea County, five counties in north-central New Mexico, Las Cruces, Silver City, Farmington/Shiprock and Las Vegas and will be soon adding one in Raton.
“We hope to have up to 20, (officers) in Roswell, Socorro, Santa Rosa and other potential sites,” Kaufman, 75, said. “The biggest thing is partnerships. We will partner with anyone.”
Ronquillo worked to forge a partnership between UNM and Central New Mexico Community College to create an academy in Rio Rancho to train medical assistants and community health workers for a tuition of $3,000 to $4,000, considerably less than the $12,000 to $14,000 charged by private colleges. The first class, for medical assistants, begins in January.
HERO Juliana Anastasoff, based in southern Taos County, worked with a large group of community entities, including the Taos Health Council, to secure a much-needed Federally Qualified Health Center for lower-income patients in Taos.
In Lea County, HERO Evelyn Rising teamed up with the county’s Health Council to get a school-based health clinic at Hobbs High School.
HERO officers work independently to concentrate on the health priorities of the region each serves, but they also meet regularly with each other to share ideas and develop strategies.
Rising, in her late 60s, is a former Hobbs News-Sun reporter who has been the Hobbs-based HERO for more than five years.
Believing that education is a key to preventive medicine, she concentrates a lot of her efforts in schools. Next month, she will be talking to Hobbs High School students about diet and hygiene, and programs she has assisted in nuturing have reduced the county’s very high teen pregnancy rate. She also encourages high school students to consider careers in health care.
“What could be more fulfilling than something in the health care field,” she said. “Something that doesn’t take eight to 10 years of school – physical therapy aides, occupational therapists, X-ray technicians. I’m helping our students find their ground, find where they fit in. I encourage them to stay in New Mexico, go to UNM and then come back and serve their community.”
They know where you live
Anastasoff, 58, got into public health in 1977 and moved to northern New Mexico 25 years ago to work in rural health care. A HERO for nearly 10 years, she lives in the Peñasco area and serves Taos, Rio Arriba, Mora and Colfax counties and northern Santa Fe County. She puts about 500 miles a week on her 2010 Ford Ranger.
She has been instrumental in improving the quality and lowering the cost of health care in Mora and in providing mental health training for hundreds of New Mexico first responders. She also chairs the department of community and public health at UNM-Taos.
“At any given time, in my head, there are 30 different things I can offer,” Anastasoff said. “I am building trust that I’m not just another academic full of hot air patting myself on the back on the way out of town. (Residents) know where you live. If you do something that causes a negative impact in the community, they will be on your doorstep.”
But if you work hard and honestly to improve the health of your community, you are a HERO.