The shifts were 24 hours on, 24 hours off.
The midwifery students were responsible for a bit of everything — deliveries, prenatal care, postnatal consultations. They spoke primarily in Spanish, mirroring the patients who visited the border-town clinic.
“We handled everything that walked in the door all day long,” Vida Sanchez said. “We worked our butts off.”
She learned Spanish before her start in the clinic, studying in Guanajuanto, Mexico, for two months. The program jump-started her understanding of the language, which she now uses so frequently she errantly slips into Spanish while leaving voicemails.
Despite her Spanish first name — which means “life” and came from her “hippie” parents — and her Spanish last name — which came from marriage — Sanchez didn’t speak a lick of the language before her midwifery work.
Her ability to speak Spanish, and her experience in El Paso, Texas, have largely driven Sanchez’s career in “medical anthropology,” or “basically how your social circumstances and the culture you live in at that particular moment in history impacts your health and your health outcomes.”
Though for Sanchez, her work is always a blurred line between passion projects and jobs that technically bring home a paycheck but require a lot of volunteer hours.
She’s mostly known for her work starting and running El Puente — “the bridge” in Spanish — a nonprofit that provided translation services to Spanish-speaking immigrants. The organization put a name to the work she started doing as a volunteer in the early 2000s, shortly after she moved (back) to Jackson following her midwifery training.
As Sanchez remembers it, “in about three years the [Latino] population increased about 350 percent.”
“We saw a very different change in the ethnic demographics of our community,” she said.
The change created a need for interpreters, especially in prenatal appointments and delivery rooms.
“We basically did not have any system in place for providing interpretation services at the time,” she said. “I was struck by how challenging it was, especially for new moms, to be able to communicate with their doctors.”
Mayra Vazquez was such a pregnant mother. She came to El Puente knowing something was wrong but unsure of what to make of her symptoms. She thought it might be the flu. Sanchez quickly connected her to her doctor, who admitted her at St. John’s Medical Center. She was in labor, but only 26 weeks into her pregnancy.
The baby girl weighed less than 2 pounds when she was delivered. Mom and daughter were quickly flown to Salt Lake City, where they spent several months in the neonatal intensive care unit.
Keily Garcia is now a healthy 12-year-old.
“If [Mayra Vazquez] didn’t have somewhere to call, if she was trying to figure out how to get to her doctor’s office, or if she needed to go to the ER — that kind of hesitation would have added even more time,” Sanchez said.
Sanchez and a small team logged hours in patient rooms, standing alongside women as they delivered in birthing or surgical suites and helping families navigate the medical system to get needed care. Following several years of volunteer work and an ambitious grassroots study compiling data from 275 interviews — which, “of course, pointed to a need for low-cost or affordable services and a communitywide system” — El Puente launched with Sanchez at the helm.
When the door finally opened “we were swamped.
“At that time there were even fewer bilingual folks employed in the different doctors offices, fewer bilingual nurses,” she said. “We basically provided thousands and thousands of hours of service every year.”
Once El Puente was off the ground, her volunteer time flipped to paid, though even as executive director she worked far past a 40-hour workweek and far outside the confines of a 9-to-5 job.
“She’s been helping to assure access to health care for the Latino community in Teton County for more than fifteen years — first by acting as a volunteer interpreter, then by forming El Puente and running it for more than a decade,” wrote Candra Day, Sanchez’s mom, in her nomination for the News&Guide’s Super Volunteer.
“Her volunteer work has made a huge difference in health care for Latinos in our community, helped many people lead healthier lives and care for healthier children, and she has given countless hours of her time to assist individuals with complex cases.”
She has seen how little things — a pregnant woman who “can’t figure out how to find her pediatrician,” for example — can became big obstacles. And when potential emergencies arise, a language barrier increases the pressure.
Two interpreters took on-call shifts every night, ready to jump out of bed and head to the hospital at all hours of the night.
“People were driving through blizzards to get to a delivery,” Sanchez said. “The people who came forward to work at El Puente were some of the most amazing people I ever met.”
El Puente, the Community Resource Center and Latino Resource Center merged into a new entity, One 22, in the summer of 2016. She moved on six months after the consolidation, but her passion remains the same.
She’s also back to where she started before El Puente, volunteering her time as a medical interpreter, this time for the new nonprofit La Voz, meaning “the voice.” The organization looks similar to the nonprofit she started before: a passionate and tight-knit group — some paid, some not — putting in long days (and nights) to help the Spanish-speaking population gain access to medical care.
“I really believe the essential component of health and well-being is at least having some aspect of your community where you feel safe and secure,” she said, “and at home.”