When Milton Mendez’s wife had to get surgery for her carpal tunnel, the health insurance they had at the time only covered $40,000 of the $45,000 bill. Mendez, 65, was left with a bill he couldn’t afford.
Unable to pay the remaining $5,000, the Mendez family was left without insurance.
For two years, Mendez of Canal Winchester has been coming to La Clinica Latina, a weekly free clinic that provides health services to the uninsured and underinsured Spanish-speaking patients, to treat his hypertension, hypertriglyceridemia — abnormal levels of fat molecules in the blood — and overweightness.
“He also smokes, but we’ve been working on that,” said Tania Gennell, a fourth-year medical student who has been treating Mendez since he came to the clinic.
“I didn’t come here to quit smoking,” Mendez, originally from Caracas, Venezuela, responded in Spanish via translation from Gennell, with a laugh.
On the corner of North High Street and West Northwood Avenue, physicians at La Clinica Latina see patients like Mendez from 5:30 to 9:30 p.m. every Tuesday at the Rardin Family Practice. The clinic is a initiative between the Ohio Latino Health Network and the Wexner Medical Center at Ohio State.
Four years ago, the clinic was closed down for “various reasons,” said Summit Shah, assistant professor at the College of Medicine and the clinic’s physician adviser. However, Shah reopened the clinic in 2016 with a group of medical students.
“We implemented some changes. We implemented an electronic medical record and expanded a lot of the services that we provide,” Shah said. “Since then, we’ve been able to grow the clinic and see more and more people every week.”
Shah said at first the clinic had one physician volunteer a night who saw five or six patients. Now, with more regular physician volunteers, he said the clinic sees an average of 15 patients a night.
Not only are there more physician volunteers, but there is a pharmacy team and undergraduate volunteers who serve as translators, while also checking in and following up with patients.
“Something that I’ve always wanted to do was help others in my situation and help my people because I’m Latina, it’s an important part of my life.” —Tania Gennell, a fourth-year medical student
Shah, whose parents were first-generation immigrants and small-business owners, grew up without health insurance and as a result had limited access to health care. His family was unaware of services like free clinics. On top of that, there was a language barrier, as Shah’s parents mainly spoke Gujarati, an Indian dialect.
“I saw firsthand the barriers that [language] presented in all aspects of their life,” Shah said.
This background is one of the reasons he pursued a medical career.
“I’ve always had a strong passion for helping those underserved and being a health care provider,” Shah said. “Addressing health disparities is probably one of my main interests.”
Gennell’s background also drew her to helping under-resourced communities and eventually volunteering at La Clinica Latina.
Gennell moved to California when she was 4 after living in Peru and Mexico. She said her family did not have health insurance when she came to the United States and relied on free clinics for health care.
“[Volunteering at La Clinica Latina] was my way of giving back, and so that was an opportunity that I saw here,” Gennell said. “Something that I’ve always wanted to do was help others in my situation and help my people because I’m Latina, it’s an important part of my life.”
Gennell said throughout her time working at La Clinica Latina as a medical student she’s learned to be more patient, which is something she said doctors may sometimes forget.
“I’ve learned how much sacrifice that our patients make and how to be more patient with them and just to be an even better listener, which I think is really important in medicine,” she said.
Shah has seen the growth Gennel mentioned for herself in the student volunteers.
“You really notice the growth in their medical knowledge, their patient interaction, their physical exam skills and their ability to take ownership of patients and medical conditions,” Shah said.
Shah said serving underinsured and underserved communities is embedded in the values of physicians and that improving the health of individuals in communities will lift the community as a whole.
“You’re allowing them to engage in and get jobs that they want to get. You’re allowing them to take care of and provide for their children. You’re allowing them to be contributing members of society to their fullest potential,” Shah said.
“A lot of the time, people do these programs because they have to, and the fact that someone comes here and they sit you down, [you’re] well-attended to, loved, that for me is what keeps me coming back. It’s that experience … Because if not, I would have left already.” —Milton Mendez, 65, of Canal Winchester
Gennell said working with Mendez has been “the best.”
“I love when he comes in. He’s hilarious, and it brings me so much joy to see him take an active role in his health and he’s very supportive of everything I’ve wanted to do,” Gennell said.
Mendez said treatment-wise, Gennell and the clinic have been able to keep everything under control. He said the clinic brings a human quality to the treatment, with physicians showing care and respect to the patients. He said he generally feels comfortable there.
And he’s not the only one. Many people he’s talked to who go to the clinic also have a good impression of it, Mendez said.
“A lot of the time, people do these programs because they have to, and the fact that someone comes here and they sit you down, [you’re] well-attended to, loved, that for me is what keeps me coming back. It’s that experience,” Mendez said. “Because if not, I would have left already.”
But that experience doesn’t stop with treatment.
Gennell said Mendez invited himself to her graduation, which she said she would happily have him attend.
“These people have become sort of like family, but still respecting the boundaries, but involved in the important events in my life. I ask them about their kids and their lives,” she said. “So for me, it’s been nice to have that rapport for years now with Milton.”
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