SALT LAKE CITY — Joel and Aidrolina Hernandez noticed their newborn daughter in pain whenever they changed her diaper.
"We took her to many different doctors, but no one could tell us what was wrong," Joel Hernandez said.
It wasn't until they traveled eight hours from their home in Guadalupe y Calvo, Mexico, to a Shriners Hospital clinic in the border town of Juarez that the young couple discovered their 5-month-old baby had been born with a dislocated hip.
Now 4 years old, Herandy Axinia Hernandez has made the arduous trek with her mother or father to Shriners in Salt Lake City a dozen times, including last week for surgery. She is expected to return for follow-up care in six months.
"In America, if you have a club foot or something, you're going to find some sort of care. But these kids come in at age 3, 4 and 5 having never had anything. They're basically crippled and shunned from society because of their conditions. You're really giving them a second chance," said Dr. Stephen Santora, a Shriners pediatric orthopedic surgeon.
But second chances for Mexican children who suffer from orthopedic defects or injuries have become much more difficult to provide and much less frequent. Violence in Juarez forced Shriners to move its clinic across the border to El Paso, Texas.
"It would be like going to Baghdad to do a clinic or maybe even worse," said Santora, who started going to Mexico in 1985.
For 30 years, doctors from the Salt Lake hospital held a daylong orthopedic clinic in Juarez four or five times a year, seeing as many 300 children. Shriners, which provides free pediatric care, would fly those needing surgery to Utah.
Those numbers have dwindled greatly since the move to El Paso. Santora said doctors saw only 30 or 40 patients on their last visit. He estimates the number of surgeries has dropped from about 100 a year to 20.
"We're going to have to accept that it's a little bit different. We're going to have to be more specific in our screening. We can't have just any kids show up because we can't get them across the border," he said.
For years, Mexicans simply showed the Border Patrol a letter from Shriners explaining they were traveling for medical care as the Hernandez family did on its first trip to Salt Lake City. Now under tightened border security, they need passports and visas. At $600 per person, most can't afford that documentation.
"In order to keep this clinic running, it has become much more expensive just to provide care for the kids," Santora said. "We've always paid for plane tickets, but this is kind of an extra fee that we're trying manage."
Santora has contacted politicians in Utah and Texas, as well as consulates in the United States and Mexico, in hopes of relaxing the rules for travel to Shriners.
"Everybody says we'll figure it out, but no one has stepped up to say we can either do it this way or that way," he said. "They won't give them a humanitarian pass to get through."
The hospital's Juarez Travel Fund covers travel costs, but due to the economic downturn, it is becoming depleted.
Santora hopes a fundraiser he put together featuring his 1970s music rock band The Wilson Project will generate about $50,000 to bring 30 children and a parent to Salt Lake City. He plays mandolin and guitar.
Regardless of the costs and border issues, Santora said Shriners is committed to keeping the clinic going because it's an important part of the hospital's mission.
"It is about the kids," he said. "That's why we keep forging ahead to do as much as we can."
And Joel and Aidrolina Hernandez are thankful for that. Aidrolina Hernandez is pregnant. When she returns with Herandy later this year, she'll also be bringing the latest addition to the young family for screening at Shriners.
If you go:
What: Shriners Hospital Juarez Travel Fund benefit concert
Who: The Wilson Project, Salt Lake Men's Choir
When: July 30, 6 p.m. to 11 p.m.
Where: Rice-Eccles Stadium Varsity Room
Cost: $35 per person
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