August 28, 2019
It’s only been four months since 14-year-old Bella’s parents sold everything they had for the chance for their family — including Bella and her two young siblings — to come to the United States from Honduras. As they neared the border, Bella and her family hid in the frigid sierra to avoid being apprehended by Mexican authorities, and they barely escaped.
But the worst part of their journey was still ahead of them.
Once they made it to the border, the family turned themselves in to U.S. authorities. This is when Bella first experienced difficulty breathing. In the hopes of increasing their chances of being admitted into the United States, they made the excruciating decision to separate. Bella and her seven-year-old sister went with their mom, and their three-year-old brother went with their father. They had no way of knowing if they’d ever be reunited again.
Bella recalls the time they spent in a detention center at the border. “We were put in freezing holding cells and in cages. We slept on the floor with only a plastic blanket. It was so cold and we didn’t know what would happen to us. I just wanted to sleep to shut it all out,” she says.
According to their friends, they were luckier than most. After nearly a week, they were released and the family was finally reunited in New Orleans.
Now, Bella is a patient with Dr. Kim Mukerjee at the New Orleans Children’s Health Project, where she recently received all the vaccines she needed to start school. Even with the horror of the journey behind her, Bella still has episodes when it is difficult to breathe. She recently experienced one so severe that her parents took her to the emergency room where she was referred for heart and lung examinations.
And this is not the only symptom Bella is experiencing. “I feel tired all the time. It doesn’t matter what I’m doing: sleeping, standing or sitting. It doesn’t go away,” she told Dr. Mukerjee.
Dr. Mukerjee is certain that Bella is suffering from extreme anxiety resulting from the dangerous and traumatic experiences she went through to get to the United States, and the uncertainty of her life in this country due to racism and government policies that threaten the safety of families like hers. Bella scored high on the anxiety screening tools our providers administered to her at the clinic, as do many of the children that Dr. Mukerjee and her team have cared for recently.
Bella just started school, so addressing her mental health needs is vital to her ability to thrive academically and start on a path of success. “The severe anxiety Bella is experiencing can set her aside from other children who have not experienced this, and can turn into long-term mental illness and chronic health conditions if left untreated,” said Dr. Mukerjee. “No child deserves this.”
But the clinic doesn’t have the funds to staff the culturally-specific mental healthcare that Bella and other children need. The team refers patients to other providers, which may require a child to wait months before seeing a therapist. If they are uninsured, like Bella and her siblings, their options are severely limited everywhere they turn for any type of healthcare.
The New Orleans Children’s Health Project desperately needs your help to hire a social worker who can provide bilingual trauma-focused mental health therapy to children like Bella so they can succeed in school and start on a path to success. Help us provide this vital care with a donation today.