By Sandy Cohen
When the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services announced in April that it would open an emergency-intake site in Long Beach for unaccompanied migrant children, it took UCLA Health just 24 hours to put together a pediatric clinic, urgent-care facility and COVID-19 isolation unit inside the city’s sprawling convention center.
For UCLA Health and the physicians, nurses and child-life specialists who staff the site, “It is a chance to really extend our care to this highly vulnerable population and support them in many ways, both for their health care needs and their psychosocial development,” says Johnese Spisso, MPA, president of UCLA Health and CEO of the UCLA Hospital System.
The emergency-intake site at the Long Beach Convention Center was set up to accommodate as many as 1,000 children; it is one of more than a dozen temporary shelters opened this year to house migrant children who have arrived without their parents in the U.S. from Central America.
UCLA learned on April 21 that the site would open the following day, and a group of doctors, nurses, lab workers, radiologists and more than 50 information-technology professionals immediately went to the convention center to begin setting up a pop-up clinic with all the services and capabilities of any other UCLA Health pediatric office.
“It was an amazing team effort,” says William Dunne, administrative director for emergency preparedness, security and safety at UCLA Health.
Child-life specialist Tracy Reyes Serrano is among the UCLA Health staff at the site. For her, participating in the effort is, in part, personal. “Both my parents immigrated here with my older brother, so it’s something really close to my heart,” she says. “A generation back, or a generation forward, this easily could have been me.”
Upon arrival at the site, the children — from age 3 and up to 17 for girls and 12 for boys — are screened for COVID-19 and other potentially urgent concerns, and electronic health records are set up. Within 48 hours, each child receives a comprehensive checkup that includes a physical exam and medical history, assessment of childhood immunizations and any allergies or medications. Basic vaccinations are provided, and an urgent-care facility operates 24 hours a day on site to address any acute or sudden needs. X-rays, lab tests and routine prescriptions also can be handled on-site.
UCLA Health is working in partnership with UCI Health and Children’s Hospital Orange County to provide medical care to the unaccompanied migrant children. In addition, the Long Beach shelter offers clothing, education and indoor and outdoor recreation. Cheerful murals decorated with giraffes, elephants and undersea scenes add color and warmth to the expansive convention center space.
Many of the youngsters have been fascinated with Reyes Serrano’s UCLA Health ID badge, which, along with her name and photo, has the Millennium Falcon spaceship from Star Wars on it. They ask her name and examine the picture of her on her ID to see what she looks like without her face mask. “They’re so curious about this environment, and they feel safe enough to ask questions,” she says. “They’re very engaged, and that’s something I wasn’t expecting. The pictures we see in the media are of kids just walking around all mopey and frightened. There’s definitely an element of that when they first come in, but once they see the space and our colorful UCLA Mattel Children’s Hospital logo on things and our cartoons, it makes a big difference.”
The change in the children’s demeanor is evident after just a few hours, Dunne says. “You see the stress reduced and more of a calmness in these children, a sense that they feel supported and cared for and are in a safe place.” Seeing the children become more comfortable within the environment has been a moving experience for many among the UCLA Health staff. “It can be heartbreaking to see some of these kids,” Dunne says. “But I think when everybody goes home at the end of the day and looks in the mirror, they have tremendous pride in what they’re doing.”
Sandy Cohen is a senior writer in UCLA Health Communications and a former national writer for The Associated Press.
Learn more about UCLA Health’s engagement with unaccompanied children >