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Santa Rosa doctor tends to community health here and in farming area of Guatemala

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Most doctors go to work every day to improve the health of their individual patients. But Dr. Kate Feibusch, a Kaiser family physician in Santa Rosa, has been doing that and much more.

Two decades ago, Feibusch went to Central America for two years to train community health workers in Petén, Guatemala, one of the country’s poorest states.

Now, with the help of a nonprofit organization she started three years ago, the medical workers she’s helped train have a new, permanent building with a teaching center and community health clinic. Feibusch, who travels to Guatemala two or three times a year, is there now and will be officially opening the clinic on Friday. Both the community health workers she’s helped train and the clinic she helped build fill a medical void in the town of El Naranjo, and the surrounding region.

“It was only supposed to be two years, but it turned out to be my most important life’s work,” Feisbusch said.

For her, the road to Central America began after she graduated from the Santa Rosa family medicine residency program, a UC San Francisco affiliate.

Feibusch, who grew up in San Francisco, attended medical school at UC San Francisco. After her residency here, she was recruited to go to Guatemala for two years with Concern America, a Southern California nonprofit that trains community health workers.

Two years turned into 12, and eventually Feibusch splintered from Concern America and continued working with a group of health care workers who formed their own organization in the town of El Naranjo.

The program called Programa de Salud Comunitaria, or Community Health Program, is financially supported by Petén Health, the nonprofit Feibusch started. Through the program, villagers, some with very little formal education, are trained in basic health care so they can provide medical services in their own communities.

Among other things, they can treat diarrhea and pneumonia, chronic diseases such as asthma and diabetes, and emergencies like lacerations and snakebites.

“It allows them to deal with as much as they are possibly prepared to deal with,” Feibusch said. “They also do a lot of first aid. It’s a farming community, and you see injuries like accidents with machetes. Pretty much all of them are good at suturing machete wounds.”

The spirit of self-sufficiency promoted by Petén Health eventually led to a drive for self-determination.

Feibusch said the trained health workers started expressing a desire to have their own medical training center and community clinic. She initially resisted the idea.

“They were the ones who wanted it,” she said. “I actually fought it pretty hard. I was looking for any other option. But they were sure that they wanted to create a place of their own.”

They were convinced they always would be at someone else’s mercy without their own education center and medical clinic, she said. That was three years ago. By that time, Feibusch, who returned to Northern California in 2012 with her two daughters born in Guatemala, was working for Kaiser Permanente Santa Rosa Medical Center.

At Kaiser, she found a perfect fit working with La Clinica, a 4-year-old clinic within Kaiser’s Bicentennial Way campus that caters to the health care provider’s significant number of Spanish- speaking patients. Feibusch’s experience in Guatemala helped her bridge similar language and cultural gaps experienced by Spanish-speaking Kaiser patients in Sonoma County.

“We wanted her to bring her expertise. She had been a long time in Guatemala,” said Dr. Carlos Garcia, the director of Kaiser’s La Clinica.

Garcia said 15% to 17% of Kaiser’s Santa Rosa patients are Latino. All of La Clinica’s staff are bicultural and bilingual. La Clinica sees up to 85% of Kaiser’s Latino patients. Since joining La Clinica, Feibusch, who is in charge of the student teaching program, has taken several of the nurses and medical assistants to Guatemala.

The new teaching center and medical clinic in Guatemala was designed by Lucas Plumb, a North Bay psychologist who used to work as an architect. Plumb did the work without charge and even paid for her own flight to Guatemala.

The building has four regular patient consult rooms, a women’s health room, a pharmacy and a dental room. The building’s emergency room was sponsored by Kaiser emergency department physicians, Feibusch said.

It also has a living quarters downstairs for longtime volunteers.

“It’s geared toward trained medical personnel from abroad to go and help train community health workers,” Feibusch said.

Victor Lopez, a community health worker with Community Health Program in Petén, said Feibusch’s work with local residents has been crucial in a region where medical services are scarce.

“The nearest hospital is four hours from El Naranjo,” he said, speaking in Spanish. “But for surrounding communities, it’s a six- or eight-hour drive. … People suffer, get sick, they die, and many times it’s from really simple things that could be treated.”

Lopez, 39, has lived in El Naranjo for nearly 17 years and met Feibusch in 2005 while taking health care courses.

The new health clinic replaces small, inadequate space Lopez and other community health workers had used. The patient waiting room also had doubled as the main classroom and dormitory.

“When we had classes going on, the patients waited outside,” she said. “In the evening, we moved the chairs aside and spread out straw mats for the students to sleep.”

Feibusch said the new clinic in El Naranjo has dorms and an open-air classroom. Petén Health, her nonprofit based in Windsor, spent about $250,000 over three years to build the training center and clinic. It will cost about $80,000 a year to operate along with the teaching programs.

One significant source of funding has come from Kaiser physicians and staff who believe in Petén Health’s mission. Kaiser employees donate through a program called KPGives, which matches employees’ donations.

“I would say this accounted for about 20% of my fundraising efforts for the medical training center. It was huge,” she said, noting 60 to 80 workers at Kaiser have supported her health care efforts in Guatemala.

With that help, Feibusch has been able to empower residents of an impoverished farming community in Central America, even as she’s created a valuable overseas learning opportunity for young Kaiser doctors.

Working as a family doctor in Santa Rosa and running a clinic and teaching program in Guatemala takes up a great deal of her time.

“This is what gives me joy,” she said. “I make time for it. I have to. I want to.”

You can reach Staff Writer Martin Espinoza at 707- 521-5213 or martin.espinoza@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @pressreno.

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