A group of ten Central American families, several of whose members are undocumented, are alleging poor medical treatment by East Boston Neighborhood Health Center.

Centro Presente, a nonprofit and immigrant rights group, is advocating on behalf of the families and is asking Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey to launch an investigation into the health provider to see if there are systemic issues related to its treatment of immigrant patients. The East Boston Neighborhood Health Center said it was made aware of the allegations this morning and is treating them seriously. The center said it has reached out to Centro Presente to understand more about the families' concerns.

In July 2020, Ligia Guardado noticed her 40-day-old baby, David, seemed tired, listless, and his lips were turning purple. She took him to East Boston Neighborhood Health Center’s clinic, where she said they listened to his heart and lungs.

A baby lies sleeping in a onesie, wearing socks
Ligia Guardado’s son David Guardado, sleeping.
Photo courtesy of family

“They said it wasn’t significant,” she said in a Spanish-language interview. She explained that the appointment lasted around 20 minutes before clinic staff told her the baby was fine, and to take him home.

David had the same symptoms the following morning, so she returned to the clinic. This time, she and Centro Presente said, he was put into an ambulance. David stopped breathing en route to Boston Medical Center and was revived once, but then he stopped breathing completely.

“When we arrived, they said 'There was nothing we could do. Your son is deceased,'” she told GBH News.

She said David had a pediatrician who worked in the clinic, but had only seen him once because he was so young. The autopsy results didn’t give the cause of death.

“No mother wants to lose her child. It's something extremely painful, that has no cure and there’s no replacement,” she said. “Nothing they say will bring my baby back.”

Guardado said she and other immigrant families who had negative experiences want to publicize their cases with the help of Centro Presente.

Patricia Montes, the nonprofit's executive director and herself a patient of the health center, said the organization wants to identify any systemic issues that might be present in the health care of the immigrant community, and ensure those issues are properly addressed. They’re hoping that Healey’s office can determine whether there’s a pattern of discrimination.

“The experiences of these families lay bare not just these broader, systemic issues, but some specific concerns relating to such a trusted institution as the East Boston Neighborhood Health Clinic which was created specifically to address the health care needs of populations such as these Central American immigrant families,” she said.

Those specific questions, for instance, include the circumstances surrounding baby David's death: which medical provider was in charge of the ambulance that he died in, who was at fault, and what medical condition he died of.

“What we know the baby is dead, and that the mother took the baby to the clinic a day before, and that she was expecting a better treatment for that,” said Montes. She said there was also a circumstance of another person who died after a serious complaint to the clinic that wasn’t heeded.

According to Centro Presente, in September 2020, an immigrant named Erica went to the health center with stomach pain. She said staff did not administer any tests during that visit or during several others over six months, but that she left with a diagnosis of gastritis and instructions to take medication. In March 2021, after the pain became even more intense, she said she finally convinced them to perform an ultrasound, which revealed she had gallstones. She was sent home with some medication.

Eventually, Erica went to Boston Medical Center. Staff there performed an ultrasound and MRI, from which they discovered the stones were causing a blockage in her bile duct and she would need an operation, which was performed within days.

A media release from Centro Presente also noted that some of the families had to deal with lack of clarity with coronavirus test results, and proper protocols leading to increased infections and hospitalizations within those families. Montes said she could not elaborate more at this time out of concern of legal ramifications.

"While we would never comment publicly on any specific patient cases, we can say that we do not have any claims of wrongful death filed with our organization and we have not been contacted by the Attorney General’s office or the Department of Public Health," the center said in a statement to GBH News. "At EBNHC, no one is turned away regardless of their documented status. We have been a major contributor ensuring that our pandemic response has been equitable, and we are proud to say that our response has led to some of the highest vaccination rates in East Boston, Revere and Chelsea amongst the LatinX population."