PA Daniela Garza leads a COVID-19 mobile testing unit in the Rio Grande Valley in South Texas, working long hours in harsh conditions, wearing full PPE. She battles the extreme south Texas heat with a smile.
Her patients — many of them impoverished and underserved, some undocumented — worry about her. She has had heat exhaustion twice. “They check in on me, and I check in on them,” she says. And on the weekends, PA Garza has started delivering produce to patients in her free time. “I am a firm believer in eating fruits and vegetables for overall health. My patients work in the fields, harvesting produce, but they don’t buy it for themselves.” PA Garza also has plans to develop a mobile produce pantry, funded by sales of her vegan baked goods. “This dream came out of COVID. I have returned to my love of baking.”
PA Garza was chosen to lead the COVID testing effort due to her experience in the DMSc program. “I have learned so much in my Disaster Medicine course – being able to look at a situation and figure out what needs to be done.” She has found ways to keep staff hydrated and the clinic stocked with electrolytes to avoid potential health crises among staff.
In the beginning of March, her normal clinic operations were halted to begin full time COVID-19 mobile testing. The mobile unit is currently in its 10th week of testing. “I am still working toward my main goal – serving my community – this has been a temporary switch of focus.” Her focus remains on patient care. “I have been getting messages through the patient portals – my patients say that we have made them feel cared for during this time, which is difficult when everyone is wearing full PPE. So I am glad our efforts are being noticed by our patients. They mean everything to me,” she says.
Of the current pandemic, PA Garza reflected, “When you sign up to be a PA, you always know that the possibility of a disaster may come, but the call to arms has come and I am happy to serve.” Her patient population consists mainly of restaurant workers, field workers, laborers, and those that care for the elderly. “Serving them is my passion.”
One of her biggest challenges during this time has been changing their relationship with medicine. “There have been many asylum seekers in my area, and also many border patrol raids. People don’t want to get tested because they don’t want to be deported,” she explains.
PA Garza says it was her natural ability to care for others that led her to becoming a PA. “In my Mexican-American culture, there are multiple generations in the same household. I was a primary caretaker for my grandparents – taking them to doctor’s appointments, and meeting their daily needs. Caretaking has always been a part of my life.” Her grandparents inspired her to take up medicine as a career. “I would never have pursued it without their encouragement,” she says. “I have been in love with medicine since high school and I am so grateful to be here now.”
PA Garza is especially proud that, in her family, she is the first person to work in medicine and also the first to earn a doctorate. “I am so thankful for this opportunity. Dr. Elyse Watkins has been a real cheerleader to me during this time, always encouraging me and providing guidance,” she adds. “The grant writing I have learned means life changing possibilities for my community and my patients — I love them.” And they love her too.