Free Clinic Volunteering

Over the summer, I volunteered at the Columbus Cancer Clinic, which provides free or low-cost screenings and mammograms, cancer prevention, and education regardless of the patient’s ability to pay. Working closely with our physician, certified nurse practitioner, mammogram technologists, medical interpreter, and clinic staff to optimize patient flow, I greeted and roomed patients, took patient vitals (including height, weight, and blood pressure), confirmed patient history, and complete reminder calls and general office tasks as needed.

Before volunteering at the clinic, I had stuck to volunteering and shadowing solely at large institutions such as hospitals in the area. However, in the midst of the pandemic as many hospitals halted their volunteer programs, I began to seek volunteer opportunities that allowed me to receive patient and clinical exposure in a more diverse and intimate setting. Naturally, I found that the Columbus Cancer Clinic seemed like the best fit out of the many free clinics in the area, as it tied in well with my involvement in a cancer research lab and BuckeyeThon on campus. It was also unique in that it was the last free cancer clinic in the state, leading to patients coming from all over the state to receive care. 

As I volunteered, I found that I was learning so much more than I thought I would, the most valuable being that I have a better understanding of the barriers individuals face on a day-to-day basis when receiving medical care in our own communities. I have learned about these challenges through various public health and bioethics courses that I have taken, but physically seeing the number of no-shows at a clinic due to obstacles that arise from the patient perspective has helped me grasp the reality of these issues. Furthermore, I had the opportunity to receive hands-on experience in the medical field by assisting in visits and working closely with the nurse to prep patients before their screenings. Such experiences will greatly assist me in my journey to becoming a physician.

Nearly 40% of the clinic’s patients speak Spanish, and it was of common occurrence for volunteers to greet patients only to realize that they do not understand or speak English. Fortunately, the clinic has many avenues in place to ensure that these patients are still being screened properly before, during, and after their visit. As a daughter of immigrants, I was able to both connect and relate to many of these patients on a personal level, as I have grown up helping others and facing some language barriers myself here and in other countries. Sometimes during a shift, there would be only Spanish-speaking patients scheduled, leading our medical interpreter to often be running around between helping patients fill out required forms to assisting in relaying information from the doctor and nurse to the patients and vice versa. Interacting with so many Spanish-speaking patients has inspired me to continue my Spanish education from high school at OSU and eventually become proficient in the language. That way, when the need arises, I can engage in conversation with Spanish-speaking patients down the road, whether that be in a medical setting or not. 

In alignment with these experiences, I completed a global awareness project for the clinic staff to expand their knowledge of the Spanish-speaking patient population at the clinic. I researched and created educational and interactive materials for display on the staff side of the clinic, including information and diagrams on topics such as proper terminology, myths vs facts, Spanish-speaking countries, general history, healthcare disparities, and much more. This project helped me incorporate my minor in Global Public Health into my clinical volunteering experience, which is something I did not anticipate initially doing but was a great opportunity to give back in an innovative way and tie together my interests in public health and medicine. It also provided a valuable asset for the clinic staff to engage in learning more about those they serve in a unique yet accessible manner.

Finally, as I mentioned earlier, this clinic focuses a lot of its efforts not only on providing medical services, but also on helping those who most need it in a variety of other aspects. The level of compassion for patients on a holistic level is unmatched at this clinic. With 60% of patients with no insurance and 34% of patients who do not speak English, patients are screened regardless of their ability to pay. Depending on income level, the clinic can provide transportation to appointments, wigs and bras for patients, rent assistance, access to the food pantry, and various other social services housed under LifeCare Alliance. Volunteers like me are often responsible for calling multiple times to communicate effectively with patients and spread their efforts in ensuring that patients have the resources available to receive their cancer screening. As I learned from a fellow volunteer, Columbus is resource-rich but connection-poor. Knowing this transformed my perspective, as it is up to us to ensure that these resources are connected to as many people as possible to ensure that they are receiving quality healthcare without facing barriers.

This project aligned very well with my aspirations, talents, and passions for learning how to prepare for medical school while also learning how to become a great physician who advocates for individuals of all backgrounds. Not only did this experience help me solidify my decision to pursue medicine, but it also met my goal of giving back to the community in a meaningful way. I was able to engage in serving diverse populations through the lens of medicine, and learn about various backgrounds and perspectives as I got to know each patient. In terms of academic goals, I learned more about patient diagnoses and diseases as I educated patients on different cancers depending on their age groups, preventative measures, and the signs and symptoms of each. Learning about the impact of health disparities firsthand also ties into understanding what it means to become a compassionate and empathetic physician in the future, propelling my career goals forward. Overall, I made an impact beyond campus and into the heart of Columbus to help the underserved, receive clinical exposure, and expand my awareness of healthcare disparities.

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