Undergraduates volunteer at HAVEN free medical clinic

Undergraduates have found a niche at HAVEN Free Clinic — a weekly clinic that serves uninsured patients who live in the 06513 ZIP code — which was once run entirely by graduate students.

Students with interests ranging from premed to Latin American studies packed the Fair Haven Community Health Center — where the clinic is located — on Saturday for a general orientation. Not long ago, the volunteer staff of the clinic consisted entirely of graduate students from Yale’s medical programs, which include the schools of medicine, nursing and public health and the physician’s assistant program. But while health care school professionals still run the clinic and comprise the majority of the volunteers, an increased number of undergraduates have filled gaps in the clinic’s services, especially in translation and social services, said Sara Whetstone MED ’08, the clinic’s director.

Board members for the clinic said undergraduates contribute principally as Spanish-English translators for a patient population of predominantly Hispanic immigrants. With 85 percent of patients speaking Spanish as their primary language, translation shortages can create a serious “bottleneck,” they said. The board members said the large undergraduate population offers a rich pool of potential volunteers, especially since it may appeal to students with diverse backgrounds and interests.

Associate Director Ryan Schwarz MED ’10 said undergraduate involvement at the clinic — which opened in November 2005 — began last summer, at which time the clinic saw a sharp rise in the number of patients. The clinic appealed to students who were around at the time on fellowships or doing research, he said, and this fall the clinic stepped up its recruitment efforts.

“We put out a big call for Spanish-speaking undergrads.” Schwarz said.

Swartz estimated that more than 20 students attended the translation orientation, but he noted that others were involved in patient and social services departments.

Emma Barber ’06 MED ’10, who as a senior was one of the first undergraduates to be involved with the clinic, said she began working for HAVEN during a joint summer fellows program with both the Free Clinic and the Community Health Center. Barber, an associate director, said she was excited by undergraduate participation, both for the clinic and for students.

“Students don’t often get to do much [medically] during their undergraduate years, for example, working in the ER,” she said. “But here [translators] can be a part of patient visits and learn about how patient care [works].”

But students interested in later careers in medicine are by no means the only ones volunteering, said Kathleen-Jo Elayda MED ’09, the patient services chair, who has taken on much of the coordination and training of translators.

Cynthia So ’07 said while she hopes to practice medicine, the clinic also appealed to her love of Spanish and her experiences working in Haitian migrant communities in the Dominican Republic.

Rachel Meserole ’10 said she heard about the clinic through e-mails sent to prospective premed students. She said she intended to study Spanish, though sadly, she said, her schedule and overcrowding prevented her from taking a course this semester in medical Spanish, which instead she said she will have to learn on the job.

Elayda said that while translators did not need to be native speakers, they did need to be fluent in order to translate during medical visits. But she said students were not expected to have extensive knowledge of medical lexicon coming in.

“[In medical school], we have to learn all the terms in English,” she said.

When the clinic opened its doors, it saw about five patients per day, staff said. That number has now tripled to around 15, a level which clinic staff said they expect to remain stable in the short run.

Comments