MEXICO CITY – Ariel Lopez, 29, watches vigilantly as his mother gets her teeth cleaned. Even while speaking to others, his eyes never leave his mother—ever watchful over one of the last things he has. Lopez is sitting in the courtyard of the Centro Recreativo Niños Heroes in Mexico City’s neighborhood of Santa Cruz Atoyac. The recreation center has been converted into a shelter for those displaced by the 7.1 magnitude earthquake that struck the city last week, currently housing an estimated 85 people. When asked about their home, Lopez’s face crumples. Between tears, he whispers, “I just can’t answer that question right now.”
According to officials, at least 500 homes in Mexico City were badly damaged in the quake, leaving families homeless overnight—many turning to the dozens of makeshift shelters popping up all over the city. Lopez says he and his mother, Marta Vasquez, 68, are doing their best to stay busy with the activities offered at the shelter. Today, they are having their teeth cleaned and blood glucose levels checked at a pop-up clinic set up by Asociacion Mexicana de Diabetes and Direct Relief. The clinic aims to provide care for those suffering from or at risk of developing diabetes, but anyone can come for a dental check-up or blood glucose check.
For Gabi Allard, president of Asociacion Mexicana de Diabetes, treatment for those with diabetes is an urgent concern in the wake of the quake. Up to 14 million people in Mexico suffer from diabetes, with nearly 2 million of those people in Mexico City. And, says Allard, there is the risk that many people living unknowingly as pre-diabetics have been pushed over the threshold to diabetes from the stress of the earthquake and subsequent losses. So Gaby has a plan. In the week after the earthquake, Gaby and her team at AMD and partners at Direct Relief have gathered blood glucose meters test strips, and dental equipment and have started rotating through Mexico City’s near 200 shelters. “We use the teeth cleaning to draw people in, “ says Allard. “And then we test their blood glucose levels. In doing this, we can talk to people about their levels and see who needs more help [maintaining healthy levels].”
Control of diabetes means a carefully monitored diet and up to $150 a month on blood sugar test strips and other medications to control levels. In the aftermath of a natural disaster, people who have lost everything are at a higher risk of losing control over their disease and falling in to a diabetic coma. “This is an urgent cause,” says Allard.
Itzel Téllez, a program manager with AMD, lives with diabetes. She recounts the few horrible moments of the earthquake that caused so much damage, and worries for the people whose damage is internal instead of external. “Your diabetes continues at every moment, and you need someone to support you in this moment so you can maintain control and not get sick.”
Dominguero Limon Monica knows the danger of stress for diabetics intimately: after the earthquake, her blood glucose levels shot to a perilously high 380. After having her finger pricked at the pop-up clinic, her level comes back at a normal 126. Monica, who works at the recreation-center-turned-shelter, says that her diabetes is mostly under control but the hardest part is diet. “We work so long here, and so we eat what is available on the street—quesadillas, tacos, tlacoyos.” The corn-based fried foods aren’t exactly ideal for a diabetic system. But, Monica says, she is lucky. Through an insurance program, she says that her only costs are about $25 a month for test strips—still a hefty sum in a country where the average monthly salary is $87. “But not everyone is so lucky,” she says to the small crowd at the clinic. Gaby Allard looks on, nodding.
– Meghan Dhaliwal is a journalist based in Mexico City.