Fresno Bee Newsroom Blog

Meet the Sablans, still doctoring in Firebaugh

Wednesday’s front page of the Los Angeles Times brought a familiar story of the Sablans, the husband-wife doctor team that serves Firebaugh. Read Anna Gorman’s profile of Drs. Oscar and Marcia Sablan here.

It’s always nice to see other media write about the central San Joaquin Valley. The Times’ story brought back memories of a profile of Marcia Sablan, written by Doug Hoagland for The Bee in 1999. Sablan was also the mayor of Firebaugh back then (she’s still a City Council member). Doug’s story was part of The Bee’s “Eye on the Valley” series profiling the region’s communities as we rolled toward the millennium.  We though we’d share Doug’s story with readers again:

Fresno Bee staff photographer John Walker’s 1999 photo of Dr. Marcia Sablan with one of her collages of photos of children she’s delivered to local patients.

Golden, late afternoon sunshine softens this town’s rough edges as Marcia Sablan, doctor and mayor, returns to her clinic on O Street after lingering along the river. That would be the San Joaquin. On the edge of town. Where there’s actually more than a dribble of water in the usually dry riverbed. Sablan has been to the San Joaquin to show off how Firebaugh carves pedestrian pathways and vista points — elements of a tranquil riverside park — out of the dirt and brush. The project beats back the small-minded notion that nothing ever changes here. Here being the northwestern lip of Fresno County, where the winter wind can blow hard. But not as hard as the big, billowy idealism that has carried Marcia Sablan across 53 years of life.

That idealism propelled her from the Peace Corps to the urban core to the rural poor of Firebaugh. Sablan serves as one of this city’s two full-time doctors and its only mayor.

She practices a brand of medicinal politics that lets her knit together this community’s private and public moments. Moments that catch people at their most vulnerable, frustrated, appreciative, petty, confused. Times when they’re most human.

For example:

  • Sablan does the ultrasound and delivers the stunning news to city hall secretary Martha Castaneda that she and husband, Santiago, will be the very happy and tired parents of triplets. Sablan feels her own toes tingle with excitement, but then fear knots her stomach. Triplets can lead to medical complications. Happily, mom and babies do just fine.
  • Sablan sits through a City Council hearing where an irate and dramatic citizen says she’ll seek relief from a proposed water rate increase by relieving herself in a jar at home. That way she won’t have to flush her toilet. Questionable logic, Sablan thinks, but she doesn’t argue. Sometimes, people in politics just need to listen, she says later.
  • Sablan visits a bedridden Sara Gonzales, 97, who sometimes confuses Sablan’s husband — the other doctor in town — for the pope. But Gonzales never forgets to press her palms together in prayer-like reverence to bless Dr. Marcia — as some people call her. She feels honored.
  • Sablan casts her City Council vote and ends a simmering controversy that has split the council into two factions. The quarrelsome issue: what to name two new city streets. “An embarrassment, ” Sablan says succinctly.

Through the petty and the profound, Marcia Sablan projects a presence that’s both looming and laid back. She’s 5-foot-10 and stands for even bigger convictions. One of the biggest: helping Firebaugh’s Hispanic majority merge into the middle-class mainstream. In a California culture where new faces seek equality and power, some people feel uncomfortable, even threatened by this white doctor’s brand of politics, says Craig Harrison, a Catholic priest and friend. It’s one of the subtexts of a culture caught in change.

Sablan often promotes that change with a shrug of her shoulders and a shy smile, gestures reminiscent of another kind of woman in another time and place. Maybe somewhere in Central America. Where a woman who never has known anything but her village stands in a dusty square. And shyly responds to a stranger who speaks only English.

Sablan once was that stranger. The Peace Corps taught her Spanish and sent her to El Salvador in 1968 to work in a public health clinic. It was the right time to be young and burning with a commitment to better the lives of the poor.

For Sablan, that commitment started in the ethnic neighborhoods of south St. Louis, where her widowed mother, a hairdresser, sent her four children to Catholic school. But that education didn’t come easily. Sablan earned it by working hard for her good grades. And she’s still a striver.

Mario Sablan, 23 and the second of her four adult children, laughs and says his mother doesn’t believe in idle time. “It’s like she can’t get enough of life, of work, of progress, ” he says.

After two years in El Salvador, Sablan came back to the states. But she wrestled with a restlessness. She felt isolated as a bright-eyed, eager idealist in a cold, jagged consumer society. She blamed people for having food to eat and cars to drive. Her raging ideals compelled her to work in the toughest, poorest ‘hood of St. Louis. “Illogical, ” Sablan says today with her shy smile.

Going to medical school made more sense. So she went, with the federal government paying for years two, three and four. Her pay back: doctoring for three years in a community with too few doctors. The feds sent Sablan packing for Firebaugh in 1981. She put in her three years and never left, snared by the glue of community and a sense of belonging sweeter than a Firebaugh cantaloupe. Sablan and her husband, Oscar, simply felt at home.

Curious for a big-city woman. And even more interesting for Oscar Sablan, who was born on the Pacific island of Saipan and went stateside for college, where he met his wife. Marcia Sablan says her husband shines with “that island mentality” — nothing bothers him — which makes him ideal for medical emergencies and for listening to her political frustrations. Oscar Sablan knows politics, too. He’s on the Firebaugh school board.

But it’s ear infections, broken bones and occasional emergencies that pack the days of the Drs. Sablan. Their medical clinic bustles at 927 O St. in the city’s sleepy downtown. Diagonal parking spaces beg for cars except in front of the Sablans’ beige, tile-roofed building with the banana plants out front.

Inside the clinic, beyond the waiting room, you find the center of their medical world. Five examining rooms opening onto a reception area with tweedy-green carpet where the Sablans and their staff greet a stream of patients more steady than the irrigation water in Firebaugh’s sun-baked fields. One hundred patients come every day.

The clinic’s walls bulge with diplomas bearing stiff, fancy lettering and snapshots of patients with enough smile power to energize a year’s worth of Crest commercials. There’s also a painting of the Virgin Mary cradling baby Jesus, a heavenly glow painted above their heads.

Of course, it’s the miseries of earth that bring people to the Sablans’ clinic. Some problems whip the tiny space into an E.R. frenzy. Two summers ago, 29 dizzy, vomiting farmworkers were rushed in suffering from pesticide poisoning. Sablan and her husband stabilized everyone and sent them on to area hospitals. This November, a ranch foreman with congestive heart failure — who thought he had a bad chest cold — collapsed as he walked into the clinic. He survived.

In calmer moments, Marcia Sablan glides from patient to patient with a stethoscope hanging around her neck. A tranquil expression floats across her face. She’s at ease with people. People like 16-year-old Tito Espinosa, his face frozen in a sly grin. Tito’s a big man in Firebaugh because he runs so well with a football. But while playing the game, he sprains his knee. Sablan examines it, addressing Tito as mijo, the Spanish term of endearment for my son. She gently breaks the news that he won’t be playing in Friday’s big high school game. Sablan says her husband, a big sports fan, helped her understand the importance of the game to many young patients.

Sablan then moves on to the broken wrist of 16-year-old Gerardo Carmona, who fell off a tractor. He’ll get a fiberglass cast, and Sablan teases that girls at school will surely notice. “They’ll have to carry your books, ” she tells a grinning Gerardo, his chin sprouting a row of dark hairs.

Sablan supervises as Jacob Garcia, a sub-intern from the University of California at San Diego, begins to wrap Gerardo’s arm. Garcia, earnest but not too much so, works for a few weeks at the clinic and stays at the Sablans’ comfortable, cluttered house.

In that home, Garcia hears Marcia Sablan’s beloved Dean Martin lounge music. He also hears the late-night knocks at the front door from sick people. People the Sablans agree to immediately meet at their clinic.

Garcia, 25, says he learns plenty of “medical things” from Marcia and Oscar Sablan. But also some life lessons in a profession that can focus on disease and procedures, not the humanity of patients. Garcia says Marcia Sablan never forgets that humanity in Firebaugh.

That’s why she started the community’s free Christmas Day dinner eight years ago. And it’s why Sablan and her husband perch in Little League bleachers when the sun shines warmer and the sounds of baseball pop and crack. Little Leaguers always need fans. She also tends roses — and yanks weeds — in the flower garden she got the city to plant at the eastern entrance to town.

For Sablan, politics swells up like a hot air balloon, big and lofty from the energy of doing something for people who need help. And if politics isn’t that, then it’s limp as a weak handshake in her mind. Satisfied to simply defend the status quo.

Sablan, of course, prefers her politics lofty. She wants an activist city government and has for her 16 years on the council. For that reason, she supported a painstaking effort to resurrect a once-dead subdivision that today is home to mostly Hispanic, mostly immigrant, first-time homeowners in north Firebaugh. It’s called Rubi Gardens.

Ten years ago, it lay vacant with a history more tortured than the mind-numbing saga of Fresno’s downtown baseball stadium. Sablan and other council members helped resurrect the subdivision when the original developer crashed in bankruptcy. The city spent money on attorney’s fees to unravel a snarled bond deal and also kicked in a $6,000 subsidy on each house (which sold for $60,000-$70,000) so low-income families could buy. Some critics said it would never work.

Sablan and her allies showed the vision and patience to prove otherwise, says city attorney Dale Bacigalupi.

The Rev. Craig Harrison, a Catholic priest, says Sablan’s commitment to social justice makes her a huge political force in little Firebaugh. Harrison served the city’s St. Joseph’s parish for seven years and recently moved to Bakersfield.

Harrison describes Sablan as “unpretentious … humble … not self-seeking.” He says she gets elected because she doesn’t talk down to people or see herself better than other people.

Of course, politics being politics, not everyone likes Sablan. Which keeps her from any Mother Theresa delusions. Mother Theresa, after all, never felt the sting of a white backlash.

Harrison says Sablan has. “Through the years, there’s been a sense of white control in Firebaugh, and Marcia treats the Hispanics as equals, ” Harrison says. “There are many upper-middle class Anglos who don’t approve of that and don’t support her in elections.”

Sablan says that’s probably true. But, she adds with no rancor, some people just feel caught in the churn of a changing California where Hispanics will soon grab majority status.

Ray Knight, a former city councilman, opposes Sablan’s politics but praises her intelligence. Knight, an insurance salesman and real estate broker, says Sablan votes to spend city money too easily. He also says she’s power hungry — leading the city to grab the chamber of commerce’s cantaloupe festival after the chamber and City Council fought over space in a city building. It’s a big mess, more convoluted and spiced with jealousy and feuds than a soap opera story line. Sablan denies Knight’s charges, and says they disagree on many things but have had pleasant dinners together.

However big-minded that makes her, Sablan sometimes wonders why she keeps running for office in a town where people fight over the darnedest things.

“I do it because I think I can take it, and I really love Firebaugh, ” Sablan says.

She loves taking care of Firebaugh’s sick people. And leading its city government, too. But when she steps into an examining room with the stethoscope around her neck, she draws a deep and wide line between the two parts of her life. Sablan says she never talks politics when seeing patients. Potholes matter. But health matters more.

“The doctor-patient relationship is more important than any political issue, ” says Marcia Sablan, the Peace Corps volunteer who followed her big, billowy idealism into the fabric and fiber of Firebaugh.

“And one more thing: I don’t hold anyone’s political views against them.”

Postscript: Doug Hoagland left The Bee in March 2009 and is the editor of Mid-Valley Publishing in Reedley.

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