Faith-based organization assesses Valley’s need for field hospital

Joel Martinez | jmartinez@themonitor.com Edward Graham of Samaritan's Purse speaks during a news conference after local leaders met with the organization at the McAllen Chamber of Commerce in McAllen on Monday. He's flanked by U.S. Rep. Vicente Gonzalez, Hidalgo County Health Authority Dr. Ivan Melendez, and Hidalgo County Judge Richard F. Cortez.

McALLEN — U.S. Rep. Vicente Gonzalez is hoping a global faith-based organization will decide to bring one of its two field hospitals to McAllen as COVID-19 continues to ravage the Rio Grande Valley.

Last week, Gonzalez, D-McAllen, asked Samaritan’s Purse for help after learning local hospital administrators had asked Hidalgo County commissioners for financial help following a more than 1,000% increase in COVID-19 hospitalizations earlier this month.

The organization is known for its humanitarian work overseas and most recently set up field hospitals in Italy and New York to treat COVID-19 patients.

“Our hospitals are bursting at the seams,” Gonzalez said Monday as he welcomed to the region Edward Graham, the son of Rev. Franklin Graham — who heads the global nonprofit — and the grandson of the late evangelist Billy Graham. “Here’s an organization that’s dealt with it head on — dealt with (Ebola) in Africa, dealt with (COVID-19) in Italy and New York — and is here to see how they can help us.”

Gonzalez said he’s been advocating in Washington and Austin for state and federal resources, and has also reached out to private organizations, such as Samaritan’s Purse, for help.

“No matter what help we get from this organization or another, it’s not going to be enough,” he said. “But any help we can get, is a benefit for our community. If we get 10 beds, it’s a benefit from where we are now.”

Graham said he and his team visited McAllen on Monday to see how their expertise and resources may fit the community.

The Christian-based organization has two, 60-bed field hospitals at its disposal, though one is currently being set up in Alaska to help a Native-American community recover from the disease.

“This is the first time that we started using our hospitals here in the U.S.,” Graham said, noting the effects of the pandemic. “And just to let you know, we have one remaining that was in New York City that we can re-deploy. So we’ll take a look … We’ll see if there’s something we think we can do here to actually take the load off some of the hospitals, which are just inundated right now in fighting this fire.”

Before the news conference at the McAllen Chamber of Commerce on Monday, Graham met behind closed doors with local hospital administrators, public officials and other key stakeholders, including Hidalgo County Judge Richard F. Cortez, Hidalgo County Emergency Management Coordinator Rick Saldaña and Hidalgo County Health Authority Dr. Ivan Melendez, to name a few.

Together they discussed some of the most pressing needs, as well as the challenges in building a field hospital in South Texas, where summer temperatures often reach triple-digits.

“You have some unique challenges here just based off geography — where you are — the temperature outside,” Graham said. “It’s just a lot of challenges that come with this, so it’s something that… we’re going to look at.”

Cortez also noted other weather-related hurdles.

“This is a very, very delicate situation right now because we’re in hurricane season, and if you put tents outside … I mean, yesterday, when we were testing people and you put the thermometer on the ground, it was 142 degrees,” he said. “So when you put a temporary facility in a hurricane’s path, and you have 60 patients there, that’s a problem.

“So, I want everybody to understand, we’re moving as quickly as we can, but we have to move cautiously because it is a very complicated thing.”

Local hospitals are also dealing with a shortage in oxygen, and that affects the project’s feasibility because the organization has to partner with a local hospital for some of those resources, including pharmaceuticals, Dr. Elliot Tenpenny said.

Tenpenny serves as the director of the international health unit at Samaritan’s Purse and is a medical doctor in emergency medicine.

“We bring almost everything,” he said. “It’s self-sufficient, but you still need capacities from the ground.”

It’s also important to have local and state governments invest in these efforts, so Graham has already reached out to Gov. Greg Abbott’s office, he added.

“It’s critical to have state leadership buy-in, especially for medical licensure and things like that, but locally, we still have to find food. Everybody has to eat. You still have to find oxygen. It’s a massive issue,” Tenpenny said.

The organization provides its own medical staff to help relieve the local professionals.

“We feel a big burden on ourselves not to put undue burden on the local community, and one of those is the medical staff,” Tenpenny said. “When you go somewhere, and then you’re asking for people to come to work, that doesn’t work because they’re already stretched. We have to bring additional capacity to the community.”

But the organization’s employment requirements recently faced criticism from the LGBTQ community because it asks its employees to sign a document stating they are Christians who do not believe in same-sex marriage.

“We have a statement of faith that people will sign to work with us, and we’re a Christian organization,” Graham said. “We serve in Jesus’ name and we want the like-minded to work alongside us.”

That decision, however, in no way impacts the care that is offered to patients, Senior Communications Director Melissa Strickland noted.

“Absolutely not,” she replied when asked whether a patient would be denied services based on their sexual orientation. “We do not discriminate, in our care, based on any criteria. We don’t require that anyone share our faith or our worldview.”

Strickland said their policy hasn’t affected the aid they offer.

“You know that has never been an issue for us. It was not an issue in New York. There was no patient denied care for any reason — and we didn’t even make that determination of who was transferred to us, the hospital did. And so we accepted every patient that the hospital sent us without any preconditions beyond whether we could meet their need.”

Melendez, the health authority, also reiterated that the local health community is not interested in personal ideologies, rather than caring for the sick and those in need.

“Our community is composed of a vast proportion of Christian-faith people, but even if they weren’t, we are certainly used to dealing with people who are in this country without permission, and we are used to dealing with people that are poverty stricken,” he said. “The last thing we’re concerned about is the color of your skin, your migrational status, (or) what you believe in.”

Congressman Gonzalez took offense to the question, citing a dire need for help.

“I condemn that question at a time in crisis in the middle of a pandemic when our people are dying,” he said. “This is a time to put ideologies aside and come together as Americans, as one. This is what our country needs the most right now, and this is certainly what our community needs, and this is what I’m advocating for. I’m inviting all of our brothers and sisters to come down here and give us whatever help they can.”

For his part, Graham said he would return home to speak to his father about the issue.

“I’ll go back with the team. We’ll talk. I’ve got my specialists in the back right now. As you can see, they’re talking and chit-chatting already about the discussion we had. But we’ll talk with my father,” he said, noting the decision would be made “pretty quickly.”