Helping the Rio Grande Valley Live Longer, Happier and Healthier
Monday, November 18, 2019
Posted by: Erin Cusack
Having grown up in Los Fresnos, TX with a population of 3,000, Israel Vega knows what it means to be a part of a small, close-knit community. “I grew up with inspirational teachers who really cared about their students and our community, and my parents taught my sister and me to be role models and to help others in need.” Israel has been involved in volunteer work since an early age and noticed the struggles people had with making ends meet, access to health care, and necessities to live. So, when it came time to pick a career, he knew his path would lead him into a service industry.
Israel first began studying to become a pharmacist. He was hired at Valley Regional Medical Center in Brownsville as a pharmacy technician when he was around 20 years old. “I was very grateful to the pharmacist who hired me. He saw the potential I had, and I was taught a great deal about medications and treatment of disease without going to a formal pharmacy technician school.” While working at the medical center, Israel noticed the professionalism of the nurses, the care they were giving their patients and the immense gratitude patients showed in return. “I started looking to see what the nurses were doing. I saw them working closely with the doctors and other health care professionals in patient guidance of care, and that’s when I decided to change majors and become a nurse.”
He began working in the emergency room, but it didn’t take long for him to see that the need for care extended beyond the walls of the hospital. “I started looking at what more I could do for patients with preventative care, and that’s when I decided to become a nurse practitioner (NP).” In 2006, Israel obtained his Masters in Nursing, and in 2009 earned his Doctor of Nursing Practice. He began working as an NP for a group of doctors in Harlingen, TX. Again, his desire to do more for his patients led him to begin talking with their families, and that’s when he learned that many of them were struggling to travel to an office.
“I found there was a need to help my community by doing house calls for them like doctors did back in the 1960s.” In 2010, Israel started Valley House Calls (VHC) as a part-time service and began seeing patients after his regular workday ended. “I actually started to get calls from several doctors asking if I could do house visits for their patients who weren’t able to come into an office. It helps families avoid an ambulance transfer to a hospital for a need that doesn’t warrant an emergency room visit.”
As the need for house visits grew, families of the patients Israel was seeing began asking him to treat them too. And he says that doctors, dentists and nurse practitioners began going to him as their primary care provider (PCP) after their office hours. That’s when Valley House Calls became VHC Family Health and Night Clinic and opened full-time clinic in San Benito. “I love seeing patients, and I definitely want to do a lot of preventative care. We see a full range of medical needs from helping a first-time mother learn to breastfeed, helping a diabetic understand their condition and control their blood sugars, to helping an elderly person stay mobile and lots of wellness exams and screenings. It’s something different every day.”
During a more serious clinic visit, Israel recalls a patient complaining of chest pain. The man had been told his age was the cause, but after asking a lot of questions, Israel recognized that this symptom wasn’t just age-related and should be checked out by a cardiologist. After making the same-day referral, the cardiologist called Israel to thank him for saving the man’s life, saying “I’m in the operating room with this guy, and he is going to have a quadruple bypass surgery.” Israel says the cardiologist told him that if the man had waited another day, he would not have survived.
And it’s that level of attention to patients that won Israel the award of “Best Provider” in the Rio Grande Valley in 2014 by the Valley Morning Star Readers Choice Award and has garnered him a “5 stars” rating from a national accredited electronic health record that reflected over 200 patient surveys. “The patients voted on that, and it felt really great to be a nurse practitioner receiving the award. I just want to help my community heal and live longer, happier and healthier.”
The same sense of community Israel remembers as a kid is what inspires him to continue providing care for the underserved areas of the Rio Grande Valley. His clinic sees about 30 patients a day and is still doing numerous house calls and caring for the elderly in nursing homes. Many of them are on Medicaid, Medicare or underinsured. If the clinic ever closed, he says there’d be a great disparity in health care. “If we weren’t able to operate, a lot of people wouldn’t be able to receive the type of care they need. Other clinics aren’t accepting new patients because they are at max capacity, or not operating after hours like my clinic. There just aren’t enough physicians out there to be able to handle the load so that’s where nurse practitioners are filling in this void.”
To be able to continue meeting the demand for care, Israel says he’s created a network of specialty nurse practitioners that he can refer patients to and keeps close relationships with physicians who will accept referrals from nurse practitioners. Additionally, VHC Family Health and Night Clinic serves as a host clinic for studying nurse practitioners to learn and receive hands-on experience. “I want to teach others how to treat patients in a holistic way. As nurse practitioners, we take the time to sit down with our patients. We do listen to them, and to their families. We know what is going on in their communities, and with more nurse practitioners able to supplement physicians, we’re able to treat more patients. I chose this profession because I want to be a voice for my patients. I want my practice to be a medical practice where my patients don’t feel afraid to ask questions and voice any of their concerns. I want my practice to be a center for healing and prevention of disease. I want to teach my patients that wellness is achievable.”