DOCTORS JODI CASADOS AND LEVI MAES remember their first Covid-positive patient at La Clínica del Pueblo de Río Arriba, in Tierra Amarilla. Maes put on every piece of the clinic’s personal protective gear and tested the 35-year-old woman. When he opened the test results, his heart sank.
As the only medical facility serving Tierra Amarilla and nearby rural communities in northern New Mexico, La Clínica was ill-equipped to handle an influx of patients. The 27,000-square-foot facility, which houses medical, dental, and mental health services, has just six patient exam rooms and two emergency rooms. The nearest hospitals were already overwhelmed with patients, leaving the two doctors on their own to protect and treat their community.
So Casados and Maes, both born and raised in Tierra Amarilla, began working to educate the community and prevent the spread of the virus—even when that made them unpopular. They petitioned the village of Chama to cancel its 2020 Fourth of July celebration, which traditionally draws more than 5,000 out-of-town visitors. “We knew this insurgence of people from out of our community was undoubtedly going to bring Covid,” remembers Casados. “It would spread like wildfire here.”
The clinic administrators looked internally, as well. The facility had recently undergone a $1 million renovation, funded by a national grant, to celebrate its 50th anniversary. But Maes, Casados, and nurse manager Yasmin Santiago knew they’d need to reconfigure the space to serve Covid and non-Covid patients.
They designed and executed a $90,000 remodel that included new walls and doors to maintain efficient patient flow and social distancing. A new drive-through allowed nurses to triage patients in their vehicles, even in the winter months. The changes allowed them to treat and vaccinate more than 100 people a day. “It made a huge difference in the way our community turned out,” says Maes.
“They both would squeeze more patients into an already-full schedule, day after day,” adds Janet Bish, a registered nurse who volunteered at the clinic during the pandemic. “They truly believe it is their responsibility to take care of their community.”
When the first vaccines became available, La Clínica received them before many larger facilities did, which drew people from as far away as Colorado and Texas. “The day that I got that vaccine in my arm, I literally had tears in my eyes,” says Casados. “For the first time, I kind of could see a light at the end of the tunnel.”
Two years later, La Clínica has vaccinated more than 7,000 people. The doctors continue to offer telemedicine care to high-risk patients, a practice they started before most insurance covered it. They’ve also created a paramedicine program with an EMS crew that visits patients at home.
“We didn’t want patients to fall through the cracks,” says Casados. “We never once stopped providing care for our population, and I’m very, very proud of that.”