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Fighting the Illnesses that Plague a Community

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DADE CITY - Amelia Cardenas points her brown Subaru down the dusty streets of Tommytown.

Her head just clears the steering wheel. Eye glasses swing from purple rosary beads that dangle from the rearview mirror.

"This lady really needs to be checked," she says, leaning forward, eyes darting from trailer to trailer as the car labors in and out of ruts in the road.

Cardenas and her assistant, clad in blue hospital scrubs, search for a black truck. That's supposed to lead them to the woman with a bad case of diabetes.

They can't find her among the ramshackle homes with flecked blue paint and limp shirts that slump over clotheslines in front yards.

So Cardenas moves on to the next person she plans to see. Like so many that she searches for here among the rusted trailers and weed-filled lots, that person is a diabetic.

The farmworkers around Dade City labor in fields for more than 12 hours a day. In summer it's under a sun that burns so strong you feel your skin about to peel off. In winter it's under sprinklers that leave them soaked and numb in predawn hours.

That doesn't leave much time for doctor's visits.

So Cardenas comes to them. Carrying a pink first-aid kit and a needle, armed to prick their weathered fingers for tests. The results invariably come back the same: high blood sugar. A sign of diabetes from fast meals on the fly or no meals at all.

"You don't want to stop working (to eat), you want to do as much as you can," she says of the farmworkers who get paid by the basket of oranges, tomatoes, strawberries or eggplants picked. "Then you get home so tired, you're not hungry anymore."

Cardenas knows the pain of hunger and backbreaking work. She labored in the fields for seven years.

Now, as a health educator and clinic coordinator for Farmworkers Self-Help Inc. on Lock Street, the spunky 50-year-old weaves between the back streets of Tommytown every day with her Subaru and pink kit.

She fights to beat back the illnesses. The sicknesses that plague her community. The diseases that stole the men of her life. A mother battles diabetes and high blood pressure

Cardenas stops outside a row of depressing looking colorless trailers.

"It's Amelia!" a young girl's voice calls inside one of them.

Dark-haired beauties feud in Spanish on a soap opera as Cardenas and her 18-year-old assistant, Alma Cruz, walk up the carpeted steps into the trailer.

A green rug covers the floor. Pink lacy drapes shade the windows and cover the entrance to the kitchen.

Cardenas sits down on the couch and starts to prepare a blood test for Maria Carmen, who has diabetes and high blood pressure. Carmen's daughter, 10-year-old Liliana Diez, tells Cruz in English that she's had a sore throat lately.

Cardenas explains to Carmen in Spanish how she might be able to get a discount on the white strips that slide blood samples into the handheld machine for a sugar count.

Carmen has one of these machines so that she can test herself and other women in the neighborhood.

Her daughter, in shorts and tank top, curls up on the floor next to her mother.

"You want to learn how to do it so you can check your mommy," Cardenas asks Liliana. The girl wrinkles her nose but then takes the machine between her pink fingernails and pricks her mother's index finger.

Cardenas explains how diabetes can lead to kidney failure, poor circulation and loss of vision. Carmen suffers from dizzy spells. She's trying to lose weight. As sweat gathers under her eyes in the stuffy mobile home, she details all the vegetables she just bought.

Cardenas gives advice about the woman's medication and shows her some exercises to do.

On her way out the door, Cardenas yells to a neighbor:

"Don Pedro, can we check you?" The workers won't stop to be tested

Pedro Colon, who lives in the trailer next to Maria Carmen, her husband and three children, qualifies for Medicaid, unlike many of his neighbors. But the former restaurant and factory worker from Puerto Rico has run out of pills he takes for diabetes because he doesn't like seeing the doctor.

Cardenas tests his blood sugar levels right there in the yard at an ancient table as roosters run around between trailers. She asks about his circulation and makes him sit down on a step so she can run a twig across this toes.

Sensing he's lying, she holds the twig still and asks in Spanish, "Can you feel that?"

"Si, si," he says.

"No, you don't, because I didn't do anything," she says, as he laughs. She tells him to take his medicine when he's supposed to and go see his doctor to get more when he runs out.

Cardenas and Cruz visit a few more patients, all with or close to having diabetes. They usually check on about 12 to 15 people per day.

"Let's go to the fields and see if we can find someone," Cardenas says before lunch.

Many families have traveled north for the summer until the oranges are ready for picking in November. But she figures they might find a few workers.

During the height of the orange and tomato season, when the migrant laborers return, Cardenas tries to visit them in the fields. Few pause long enough to be tested for high blood sugar counts, cholesterol or high blood pressure.

"They will not stop working so we can test them," she said.

So she sets up a table and chairs outside the local grocery on Lock Street, hoping to catch people on the way in and out.

Cardenas steers the Subaru south of Lock Street along U.S. 301 and onto Old Lakeland Highway. She crosses the railroad tracks and heads down tongues of blacktop that spill onto gutted roads between yawning green fields.

In the distance, in the middle of neat rows of eggplant, stands a solitary figure, bent over, wearing a broad rimmed hat. Cardenas drives closer, leaves the car and walks over to Adelido Martinez, who is fixing a new irrigation system. She asks whether she can check him, and he obliges, rolling up the sleeves of his plaid shirt. She pricks his finger at the hood of her car and also checks his blood pressure.

Everything looks good. She continues on down the roads until she comes to a field and climbs out again.

She points to an oak tree casting a long shadow with its branches, far off the muddy road. That's where she used to sit and cry, she says.

"I would cry because I couldn't pick as much as other people," she says. "How can I support my kids?" she'd ask.

"Under that same tree I met my husband." Cancer stole away her husband and son

They were married for only 18 months. That was when the man she met under the oak tree, the man who had offered her a tall glass of water, died of cancer.

He had been her second husband, a man who was kind to her and her children after she came to Florida in 1986 escaping an abusive ex-husband. Cardenas grew up doing farm work. Born and raised in Texas, she traveled through the Midwest and Southwest picking sweet beets, tomatoes and apples.

Two months after her husband died, Cardenas' son was diagnosed with brain cancer and died several months later. She returned to the shade of the tree and cried some more. She still drives out to the fields and walks around when she's depressed, she says.

Cardenas has worked at Farmworkers Self-Help for about five years and feels indebted to director Margarita Romo for giving her a job when she needed help. She suffers from inexplicable headaches and wonders whether her pains and the deaths of her husband and son might be linked to the pesticides they were exposed to for years.

"I get tired and think I'm going to quit," she says. "But I think, "No, I can't let Margarita down."'

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