By Jessica Blum

The drive from San Diego to Ensenada lasts about an hour and a half, and takes you right along the coast of Mexico, offering beautiful ocean views. Although nearly anyone could appreciate the scenic beauty, it is only when you make the trip down with a local that you realize there are several landmarks along the way that distinguish the way a local sees the landscape.  One of the first of such locations you encounter is a small beach town full of colorful homes right on the water. Rolling down the window, my physician mentor, Dr. Alicia Sigler, explained to me that the region has a high rate of childhood asthma, and inhaling a deep breath, I could undoubtedly smell the musty scent of what was purportedly mold.

The next site along our drive, between Rosarito and Ensenada, is hard to miss. La Casa Gótica is a towering home right on the beach donned with several statues and most notably, a giant face of Satan. In a country with such strong conservative propensities founded in religion, this devil home is an offense at best. All I have ever heard anyone say as we passed was “que feo!” Built by Tony Wells, an American real-estate man, the home was built to “put Baja on the map.” I could not help but find it … interesting … that this man felt Baja needed his architectural contribution to be “on the map.”

Continuing on, you come across an area I silently named the Hotel Graveyard. This “graveyard” is a stretch of about two miles along the coast with towering abandoned buildings. These half-built structures, for which I was told there was more ambition than money, give the area a very eerie feel, and I am always grateful when we finally passed under a nondescript bridge and into Ensenada.

Ensenada is a beautiful city with towering mountains juxtaposed against a cool blue ocean. Everything seems a little sunnier and more colorful as we pull up to the UNEME clinic. UNEME stands for La Unidad de Especialidades Médicas, and it is a government-run center for minimally invasive surgeries. This includes cleft palate repairs; amongst the other craniofacial procedures I get to witness. Dr. Sigler, Plastic Surgeon and guide extraordinaire, also conducts her pre-op and post-op visits at this site. This provides me the opportunity to converse with patients and administer the Health-Related Quality of Life study to the children receiving craniofacial treatment.

In hopes of informally obtaining some qualitative data from my experience, I go out of my way to talk to patients about what brings them to the clinic and how they got there. For some patients Ensenada is a short trip from home and they can be discharged the same day as their surgery. On the other hand, some patients travel great distances over difficult terrain to reach UNEME Ensenada. I met one young girl, seven years-old, who was in Ensenada for her palate repair. A quick conversation revealed her struggles with activities of daily living that we take for granted: eating, drinking, speaking, breathing. Her palate repair would hopefully make a big impact in all these areas, allowing her to experience many mundane joys of everyday life without concern of having liquids come out her nose or difficulty breathing when she slept.

After her palate repair, the patient’s family and Dr. Sigler decided that it would be best if the patient stayed the night in Ensenada. After all, the trip home meant two hours on a bumpy dirt road and threatened dehiscence of the freshly joined palatal tissue. The family was of course concerned about the added cost of a night in Ensenada, but the benefit of a successful pro-bono surgery for their daughter outweighed these costs. 

The more time I spent in Ensenada, the more I realized the numerous similarities between the patients and their concerns across borders. Money is a universal concern, but parents were willing to pay any cost and cross any distance in order to get their children the treatment they needed. Supportive parents are not the rule, no matter where you are, but fortunately every parent I sat down with spoke passionately about their child’s care and the relief felt by their child having a shot at a normal life.

The days in Ensenada must always end with fish tacos and the nagging thought of food poisoning as you guzzle down agua fresca and pile fresh salsa onto your plate. Taking big bites allowed me the excuse of nodding rather than answering when any questions were directed my way in quickly spoken Spanish.

The drive back is marked by each of the same landmarks. The Hotel Graveyard, La Casa Gótica, and the lingering mustiness of the unnamed beach town each marked the path on our way home. Another day in Ensenada had passed, another young girl’s life had been altered, and I had the amazing privilege of witnessing all of it.

Scenic Ocean Views Along the Drive to Ensenada
La Casa Gótica <from Google photos>
UNEME Clinic in Ensenada
Ensenada Surrounding UNEME
UNEME Clinic Interior

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