BISBEE — Cochise County’s Chiricahua Community Health Clinic, Inc. was recognized for the progress made in pediatric health care as Drs. Jonathan and Darlene Melk were presented with the Children’s Health Fund Irwin Redliener Award for innovation and advocacy.
She is CCHCI’s chief medical officer and he is the chief executive officer, making them a power couple whose focus is to better the lives of children and adults in Cochise County.
Addressing the donors of the Children’s Health Fund, a partner and a major grantor to CCHCI, Jonathan Melk told how important the charity is in meeting goals for children’s health. CCHCI cares for 17,000 children in the health care clinics, the majority of whom live in poverty.
“At CCHCI, we serve a vast region the size of Connecticut and Rhode Island combined,” he said. “This is in a remote land that few know and few visit. Given our proximity to the border, it naturally draws international attention.
“Very few will ever know the area where we work. This is what makes the donors of CHF so remarkable. You don’t even know these folks, but you are so willing to help the children and families of this far off land. You have not only saved the lives of children, but you make their lives better and more dignified.
“We simply couldn’t do it without your help. Your donations allow us to innovate and impact the lives of children and their families. We want you to know that you have not only saved the lives of children, but also you make their lives better and more dignified.”
Darlene Melk fought back tears of appreciation and said, “On behalf of the children we serve, we deeply appreciate the donors for giving us the ability to carry out our work.”
Over the years, Children’s Health Fund has provided funding for staff, care for children impacted by chronic disease and funded a telehealth program for children with type 1 diabetes who would otherwise have to travel about 2½ hours to see a specialist.
“Due to this telehealth experience, at the beginning of the pandemic Chiricahua was able to change from in person care to telehealth literally overnight,” said Jonathan Melk.
Darlene Melk noted the CCHCI Center for Pediatric Excellence, located just blocks from the Mexican border, was started with funding from CHF.
“The center promotes early childhood care and programming in one of the nation’s poorest communities,” she said.
Jonathan Melk stated in response to questions, “Darlene and I learned long ago that everything is done better and bigger as a team. What this recognition means to me is that Chiricahua’s team of nearly four hundred is making real progress on our path of providing exceptional primary care to the children and families of Cochise County.”
She added, “This recognition is an honor, but comes from having an incredible team of mission driven, committed professionals here with us. We still have a ways to go to accomplish all that we want to bring to our patients, but we are making progress in spite of the challenges that living in a rural area can bring.”
CHF grants helped with COVID–19 testing via the mobile medical units leading to a control of the virus early on, she said. It also funded a prescription delivery program during the pandemic when people were unable to come in and get them. They were delivered by four-wheel drive vehicles and even on foot.
CCHCI also was able to deliver vaccinations to people through the mobile health clinics.
“Children’s Health Fund has hosted countless opportunities for our pediatric team to learn, grow and interact with some of the most remarkable pediatric professionals in the country,” she said.
Jonathan Melk added, “This opportunity has led to our growth from a single pediatrician in 2006 to now 30 pediatric providers today with 150 support staff and literally hundreds of thousands of interventions that would otherwise not have happened.”
CCHCI’s work is not done yet, said Darlene Melk. “We continue to face the challenges of too few staff and poverty and an ever changing situation on the U.S–Mexico border.”
CCHCI goals for 2022 are expanding mobile pediatric care to remote farmer communities, mobile vaccinations to all children in the communities served and increasing dialogue with Mexican colleagues, she explained.
Darlene Melk was recognized in November by the National Organization of State Offices of Rural Health, which selected her as their 2021 Community Star representing the state of Arizona. She was honored and celebrated for her exceptional contributions to rural health by sharing her story alongside others from across the U.S. in the official book of Community Stars.
She joined Chiricahua Community Health Centers Inc. in 2010, taking care of pediatric patients in Douglas at the Early Childhood Center of Excellence and Sierra Vista Pediatrics. She was the third pediatrician to come to Douglas as part of CCHCI. She is based at the Early Childhood Center of Excellence in Douglas, where she and her husband live with their two children.
“We have developed patient care teams here,” she said. “Our teams are very aware and we communicate well with each other so we know each other’s patients.
“It’s basically because of the demand. It’s obvious there’s a need. There’s some children that we still are not able to reach, but we are getting into communities we never were before.”
She said she is starting to see a change now as families are seeing the importance of prevention visits.
“I have focused my career on those children with the least access to quality medical care,” she said. “Intervening early in children’s lives ensures their best chance for a healthy future.
“When we first came, it was very much acute care. They would only come if they were sick. Now we have families coming in for their well child checks and they are coming in for dental as well, which we have integrated into the building so they can come get their vaccines, blood checks and dental all in one day.”
Building trust is not always easy, but Jonathan Melk noted, “In my experience, pediatricians are in general initially blessed with trust of the majority of families we serve. To build on that trust, my most successful strategy has been to ‘dive in’ with the family with the problem at hand and to not give up under any circumstance ever despite the challenges or odds. I now apply these lessons and strategies to my leadership strategy as CEO of Chiricahua.”
Darlene Melk added, “I believe that if you are genuinely interested in the wellbeing of the children we are serving, parents can feel that and generally speaking, continue to trust us with the care of their children. I firmly believe that if we can provide children with high quality, comprehensive healthcare during the most sensitive time of their lives (birth to five), they have a much better chance of reaching their full potential. I also firmly believe that ALL children are innocent and come into this world without any control of where they are born or who will be their primary caregivers. I wanted to devote my life to supporting those who are raising our children and especially to those children who may have been born in an under-resourced area of the world.
Jonathan Melk stated, “I chose pediatrics because I really adore children, children are innocent, and the practice of pediatrics is so deeply vested in prevention. Also, adults are often motivated to make the extra effort for children that we may not do for ourselves.”
On National Rural Health Day, she helped to celebrate Chiricahua’s team of health workers with a special luncheon in their honor at the Family Health Center in Benson. The team of Rosa Maria Mendoza Chapa, Martin Rubio, Erika Vega and Karina Fernandez were presented with personalized embroidered backpacks containing battery packs for their cellphones, which will come in useful when they are working in remote areas of the county, bringing health care to some of the most underserved communities, as well as visiting homebound patients and providing care at homeless shelters and low-income housing developments.
CCHCI has been serving Cochise County since 1996 and is the largest provider of primary health and dental care and preventative care in Southeastern Arizona.