Valdez discovered her calling in 1990, when she joined her then-colleague, Dr. Tomio Hirota, on one of his monthly visits to Tijuana with a volunteer medical team. "It was the first time I saw so many needy people," she says. She soon began returning solo, even while nine months pregnant with Michael. After Hirota's death five years ago, Valdez, 36, agreed to run the project, and now spends some $500 a week and much of her free time on it.
Valdez's compassionate spirit is rooted in her own hardscrabble early years in Santa Ana, Calif., as the second of six children of a hard-drinking and abusive father (now in recovery). "I promised God that if He would get me out of that situation," Valdez says, "I would devote my life to helping others." That devotion was a factor, she admits, in the '99 breakup of her marriage to fellow nurse Anthony Valdez, 34. Her son has proven more understanding. "I realize," says Michael, "she has important work to do."