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A calling to care

"A calling to care" Continued...

Issue: "Race to the finish," Nov. 3, 2012

Catadal soon was embedded in a real-life crash course in medical terminology. He had to sharpen his Spanish and listen when patients “poured out their heart and soul”: It was uncomfortable, but “a good kind of uncomfortable.” With that volunteer experience serving as a door opener to professional school, Catadal today is a registered nurse at Portland Veteran Affairs Medical Center. He says volunteering opened his eyes to great needs and prepared him to be the hands and feet of Jesus for veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and depression.

College students who want to go to dental school are a dependable source of volunteers at the Seattle Union Gospel Mission Dental Clinic (SUGMDC). Fifteen to 18 students per month volunteer at the clinic in the basement of the Gospel Mission, receiving in return training, experience, and a leg up in the dental school admissions process. The University of Washington accepts 65 students a year into its dental school, drawing from a pool of 12,000-15,000 applicants. One year 11 volunteers from SUGMDC got in. Last year six did.

The Gospel Mission dental clinic is not fancy. It has three mismatched dental chairs: Dentists use two for doing extractions and fillings, and a hygienist doing cleanings uses one. The clinic has an X-ray room, a sterilizing room, and a break room. Juanita Banks has been the clinic’s only paid staff member since she started working there in 1995. She says it has always been difficult to get dentists to volunteer, but recruiting the first one was the hardest. Some were nervous about volunteering at a mission clinic until they saw that the clinic was professionally run with up-to-date equipment.

Seventeen years later, finding enough volunteers is still a month-to-month challenge. Banks keeps track of the schedule on a big desk calendar, using yellow to designate when a doctor will be at the clinic and orange to signify the presence of a hygienist.

Some nursing programs require students to volunteer in free clinics as part of their training. Nurse practitioner Martha Brinkso began volunteering at Charlotte Community Health Center when she was in graduate school. As an experienced ICU nurse, she feared that volunteering at a free clinic “might be boring, but I was wrong.” Now she works at the clinic full-time, her salary paid for by contributions: “I have never worked such long hours in any job I have had,” she said. “But it’s the most satisfying type of work.”

Doctors or nurses who feel called to serve the poor, and have a sense of what that means, are much more likely to practice medicine in underserved areas, says Steve Noblett of the Christian Community Health Fellowship: “If a Christian student does a rotation in a solid, well-run Christian clinic, that student stands a very high chance of eventually caring for the poor, either domestically or abroad.”

With reporting by Tiffany Owens, Christina Darnell, and Kira Clark

Spotlight on Seattle

A diverse mix of clinics provides care to a diverse city

By Kira Clark

PATIENTS KEEP COMING: Dr. Rich Kovar with a patient at PSCC
Handout photo
PATIENTS KEEP COMING: Dr. Rich Kovar with a patient at PSCC

Seattle is home to 70 nationalities whose members speak over 200 dialects ranging from Taishanese to Swahili. But some diversity is troublesome: Seattle is a global medical center, yet neighborhoods in Rainier Valley, five miles from the 76-story Columbia Tower downtown, share the same health status as communities in Africa. 

For the one out of 10 Seattle residents who is uninsured, Federally Qualified Health Centers (FQHCs—see “Calling the Shots,” Sept. 22) and charity clinics provide a mix of coverage. Let’s take quick looks at three: Country Doctor Community Health Center, Swedish Community Specialty Clinic, and Puget Sound Christian Clinic.

Country Doctor, an FQHC, sees Medicaid/Medicare patients and also the uninsured who pay on a sliding scale. A potted vine hanging from the ceiling, and a nurse wearing a floor-length denim skirt, are part of its funky vibe: One June morning, a young hipster couple in skinny jeans and gauge earrings, a Hispanic mother cradling a newborn, and a bald, wrinkled woman in bottle-rimmed glasses wait to be seen. A gentleman in his 50s, sporting a gray top hat and an orange tie-dyed shirt, seems at home.

The clinic’s informality puts its immigrant and student population at ease, and the patients keep coming: Each year Country Doctor logs about 65,000 patient visits, relying on a paid staff and medical trainees. Country Doctor could become even busier under Obamacare as more people qualify for Medicaid. Even now patients wait for appointments, something they complain about on websites like Yelp.

One night a month Country Doctor holds a free clinic for street kids: They won’t come in during regular hours, so offering a separate clinic allows the staff to address issues of concern to them. The clinic has four Spanish translators and uses another organization for less common languages.

The walk from Country Doctor—in a neighborhood of small one-story houses, some with fresh paint and others with grass growing through chain-link fences—to Swedish Community Specialty Clinic takes 25 minutes and goes from graffiti to glam. Patients ride a silver elevator to the upper-level, 4,000-square-foot clinic, where local specialists offer free specialty care, including cardiology and general surgery to uninsured people referred by Project Access Northwest (PANW).

Director Tom Gibbon says some patients walk into the waiting area, which looks like a page from a design magazine, and walk out thinking they are in the wrong place. Patients wait in soft leather chairs. Exam rooms have views of Seattle that rival those from the Space Needle. Gibbon says the fancy decor is about dignity: He wants the free clinic to feel as nice as any regular clinic at Swedish Hospital, and notes that doctors are more likely to volunteer in a good-looking place. 

The personnel are as striking as the decor, according to patient Darlene Alcaylea, who received a hip replacement at the clinic: “It was really hard for me to ask for charity. ... Everybody there, they were like angels. ... You can tell when someone is phony or from the heart. To me they are heroes.”

Puget Sound Christian Clinic (PSCC) doesn’t have the glamor of Swedish Community or the hipster charm of Country Doctor. It sees medical and dental patients on Wednesday evenings and Friday mornings from offices inside North Seattle Alliance Church, and offers counseling on Thursdays.

Started in 2003 by former missionary healthcare providers who saw an unmet need in their own city, PSCC relies on volunteer doctors, nurses, and other health professionals. It explicitly aims to show Christ to the uninsured “by providing quality, compassionate health care while asking the Holy Spirit for opportunities to share the Good News of Christ with them.”

In 2010 PSCC purchased a 40-foot mobile clinic—basically an RV outfitted with two examining rooms and a nurse’s station—that rotates among six locations hosted by different churches. The 10-year-old vehicle allows the clinic to provide care in different neighborhoods, using willing churches in those neighborhoods to support the clinic financially and find volunteer doctors and nurses to staff it.

On one typical day volunteer Page Campbell greeted patients as they arrived and offered them encouragement and prayer after their appointments. Six-months-pregnant Susan Baazak, an immigrant from Egypt who works in the church food bank, says her mother has heart trouble and no health insurance, so she comes to the mobile clinic: “It’s a bless.”

Susan Olasky
Susan Olasky

Susan pens book reviews and other articles for WORLD as a senior writer and has authored eight historical novels for children. Susan and her husband Marvin live in Asheville, N.C. Follow Susan on Twitter @susanolasky.

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