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Volunteer Students Keep Health Clinic Going

By Mark Muckenfuss, Staff Writer, The Press Enterprise
(From The Press Enterprise, March 8, 2013 – used with permission)

Photo by Stan Lim

Photo by Stan Lim

     Xochitl Garcia’s migraines no longer force her to hide in her bedroom for days at a time.
The blood pressure medication she began taking eight months ago has pretty much eliminated the debilitating bouts of pain, she said.

     “I’m able to spend more time with my kids,” said Garcia, 36, a Riverside mother of four children, speaking through an interpreter. “Now I volunteer at their school. I’m there twice a week. I’m also taking English classes.”

     She attributes the change in her daily life to the care she has gotten at UC Riverside’s Student-Run Health Clinic. Like many of those who come to the free clinic — held every other Wednesday at the First Congregational Church in downtown Riverside — Garcia says it is her only health-care option.

     “I had gone to the doctor, and I had high blood pressure,” Garcia said. “I didn’t have the money to go back, so I came here.”

     Last Wednesday evening, March 6, Garcia sat at a small white plastic table in what serves as a communal consult room for the clinic. She was surrounded by a half-dozen similar sets of tables and chairs, and a few larger ones, all crowded with other patients and student volunteers from UCR. At the edges of the room, students in white lab coats and others in dark blue scrubs stood huddled in clusters. They carried clipboards and file folders. The drone of voices was equal to that of a crowded bar.

     On the second floor of the church, patients who need or request a more private setting are seen in individual exam rooms.

     The white-jacketed students are in their first or second year of medical school, part of UCR’s Haider Program, a cooperative venture with UCLA. They spend their final two years of study at UCLA.

     Most medical schools are connected with student-run clinics, but UCR’s, which started in 2004, is larger and provides more types of care than most, according to the doctors who oversee it. When UCR’s new medical school opens this fall, it will increase the potential pool of student volunteers and those involved expect it to expand.

     At the clinic, medical students meet with patients, discussing symptoms and medications. The undergraduate volunteers, in the blue scrubs, observe or perform administrative tasks.  Local physician volunteers serve as advisers, either approving or modifying the treatments proposed by the students.

     First-year medical student Navasard Ovasapians, 25, sat across from Garcia. He had just measured her blood pressure at 150/90, a reading considered high. “When’s the last time you checked your blood pressure at home?” Ovasapians said.

     Garcia said she couldn’t remember, but when she did, she remembered it was 131/79.  She wondered if her nervousness about being at the clinic could have caused the elevated reading that Ovasapians detected.

     “That’s one of the reasons we want you to monitor it at home,” he said.  He encouraged her to take it daily and to make sure that she took her blood pressure medicine at the same time each morning for maximum effectiveness.

     Garcia assured him she would.


     Many of the free clinic’s patients have become regulars.

     Dr. Paul Lyons, senior associate dean of education for UCR’s School of Medicine, is one of the physicians overseeing the clinic.

     “We take care of a variety of acute complaints such as sinus infection, or a cold or if they have belly pain,” Lyons said. “We do not have access to any radiology but we do have access to labs. The second big category (is) the management of chronic disease such as diabetes and high blood pressure. At least half of our visits are for management of chronic disease.”

     Patient Dave Clegg, 53, was sitting next to the lab area where students were struggling to find a good vein in a female patient so they could draw blood. Clegg said he had been worrying about his health when his sister told him about the free clinic and convinced him to come shortly after Christmas.

     “My blood pressure was sky high,” Clegg said. “I kind of suspected something because my heart was really pounding away pretty good. I was like 230 over something. They wanted me to go to the ER.”

     On this night, his reading was 150/90, still high but not life-threatening.

     Clegg said he used to work in a photo processing lab but was laid off six months ago.  He’s currently homeless, bouncing back and forth between the homes of two sisters who live in Temecula and Rancho Cucamonga. With no health insurance, he said his options are limited.

     “If I didn’t have this service, I don’t know what I’d do,” he said, adding with a short laugh, “I’d probably be dead by now.”

     Ovasapians said having the chance to work with patients is a huge benefit for students.

     “This is what medical students get in their third and fourth years,” he said. “We see hypertension and people with diabetes. If left untreated (diabetes) can lead to blindness, amputation, (even) death. That’s an area where we’re making a big difference.”

     In addition, he said, students get to “connect with patients and learn how to develop a relationship with them. And you can’t do that anywhere else.”

     Although he spent four years as an undergraduate at UCR and earned a master’s degree in biochemistry and molecular biology, Ovasapians said he was somewhat insulated from the local community. The clinic has been an eye-opening experience for him.

     “I don’t think I realized how great the need is in Riverside,” he said. “We do see a lot of  homeless, but there are a lot of people here who have jobs and just can’t afford insurance.  This is the only real access they have to health care.”


     The clinic grew out of a food assistance program (Project Food Mission) that has been operating at First Congregational Church for nearly 30 years.  Richard Wing, a former UCR chemistry professor, said many of that program’s volunteers were medical students.  He and his wife, Donna, a registered nurse, thought it would be a good idea if the students could volunteer at something more in line with what they were studying.

     They started on a shoestring with a couple of volunteer physicians overseeing the clinic.  Now, about 50 medical students and an equal number of undergrads staff the clinic, along with 10 volunteer doctors. Only a portion of those staff the clinic on any given night, seeing between 50 and 60 patients. A modest annual budget of $15,000 to $20,000 covers equipment and supplies, Wing said. Most of that money comes from grants from local and national health foundations.

     In the past few years the clinic has added a pharmacy, operated mostly by volunteer students from Loma Linda University Medical School, and dental care, provided by volunteer dental students from Pomona’s Western University.

     UCR’s Lyons, who established a student-run clinic during the time he was at Temple University, said the Riverside clinic is more extensive than most.                                             

     “This is a pretty large and ambitious program,” he said. “This is not just health screening.  It’s not just a health fair. It’s run through the summer and over most breaks. Really, it only takes a week off over the winter holiday break.”

     With the opening of UCR’s School of Medicine this fall, Lyons and others expect the clinic may grow. There is even discussion about finding larger, more quarters in or near the downtown area.

     Second-year medical student Michael Zaki, 23, has been working to provide a stronger administrative structure for the clinic, including a board of directors. While he won’t be here to see it — he’ll move to UCLA next year — he’s expecting a more robust clinic in the future.

     “We’re seeing a lot of support from the medical school,” Zaki said. “I anticipate it’s going to grow. I really hope so.”

     If so, more patients may find the kind of help that Xochitl Garcia says changed her life and that of her children.

     “Before, my children took care of me,” she said. “Now I have the privilege of taking care of my kids.”

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