Twenty-six years ago, Yung-Chen Lu had been approached by a group of physicians at his house and was presented an idea: to establish a free medical clinic.
Lu, a mathematician, starting a free medical clinic.
“Why? Because on my back, they put a label on my back, saying this guy is a ‘doer,’” he said.
Two months later, Lu met with 37 other people, 20 of them physicians, in the basement of the now closed Kahiki restaurant in Columbus to discuss the possibilities of creating a free clinic in the city.
Although Lu was told that creating a free clinic wasn’t for him, he was given the opportunity of chairing an ad hoc committee to explore what he could do to establish one.
Years went by and Lu was doing other work in the Asian community, such as creating a meal delivery program for elderly in Columbus and founding what is now the Asian Festival. When 1997 came around, the goal he had set out to do four years before was complete, and the Asian Health Initiative Free Clinic was open.
Because he was a doer.
Twenty-two years later, that clinic founded by Lu, now a professor emeritus in the Department of Mathematics, is still housed in the Rardin Family Practice on the corner of West Northwood Avenue and North High Street where it initially opened, and still serves underserved people in the Asian community in Columbus, seeing patients every Monday evening.
According to Asian American Community Services — a nonprofit organization based in Columbus that serves the needs of Asian, Asian American and Pacific Islanders in Central Ohio — the clinic provides culturally and linguistically appropriate services for those who need them. The clinic also aims to “improve access to health care, assist in maintaining good health, and to promote health screenings in the Asian community,” AACS stated on its website.
Dr. Andrew Keaster, the medical director of the AHI Free Clinic since January, said the main demographic of those seeking the clinic’s services are those of Southeast Asian descent. He said the clinic does somewhat put a focus on specific regions so they know what translation services are needed and other health screening services.
“Really when you say Southeast Asia, that encompasses a lot of different ethnicities, and a lot of different languages and cultures within that,” he said.
Keaster initially decided to volunteer at the clinic because he wanted to give back to the community that had helped him in the past when he was studying abroad in China.
While he was there, he said he developed an ear infection that caused him to temporarily lose hearing in his left ear.
He was someone in a country where he couldn’t speak the language well. He was a student with a lack of money. And, he was someone who considered himself to be relatively privileged, coming from a white, middle-class American family. So for him, that experience was terrifying even though he did get treated for it.
“Oftentimes, [patients] come over to the United States, maybe they do or don’t have citizenship status, maybe they do or don’t have insurance, or maybe they do or don’t have the opportunity to finance medical care if something goes wrong,” he said. “I can’t imagine the struggles some of our patients face, who don’t have some of those those resources in their background so that when things do arise, where do they go? What do they do?”
He added that while the clinic doesn’t provide emergency services or surgeries, they still help steer those who need these services to the right places.
For Kevin Hsu, a second-year medical student and clinic student coordinator, he decided to volunteer at the clinic his first year of medical school because he wanted to find somewhere where he could practice more of the human interaction side of medicine.
Hsu said as an Asian American, working and treating patients from within his own community and background has been rewarding. Having the opportunity to serve families and their children who may have faced similar struggles to himself has been personally gratifying.
“You always feel a certain type of connection to people who have a similar background to you, who struggled the same way, and so it’s having the opportunity to think about what we can do not only as an individual but as a group to serve that side,” he said.
His own upbringing and background has also been helpful when it comes to treating patients as well, whether it had been speaking Mandarin Chinese to patients whose English might not be fluent or communicating to patients what treatments may be best for them, especially those used to Eastern medicine.
Eastern medicine, he said, focuses more on the belief of the whole body and using supplements, nutrients and other herbal medicines that the U.S. doesn’t as much.
“What we’ve had to learn is how do we take all of this information that we’re given and give out recommendations and balance what they’ve been hearing from their own health practitioners — maybe people back home or what they’ve heard from a friend — versus what we think might be the most appropriate way to have a patient go in terms of treatment,” Hsu said.
While Hsu said he doesn’t think clinics shouldn’t be restricted to one ethnic group, he believes there are still advantages of clinics that do. In this case, he said having an Asian and Asian American clinic has allowed them to concentrate on issues facing this community specifically, such as health screenings focused on Asian community-centric diseases, like Hepatitis B, or providing interpreters that might not be available at other clinics.
“Being able to provide Mandarin translation, or Korean translation or Vietnamese translation, it’s not something here in Columbus you can really find in the other free clinics — if not most of the other clinics period,” Hsu said.
Even after 22 years, Lu still looks toward the future. He said that he hopes the clinic can get more funding and more support. Currently the coordinators that they have hired are not being paid much even though they are doing a lot of work.
But as for Keaster, he said his hope is that one day, he won’t need to work there anymore, and that something like the AHI Free Clinic is a concept of the past in a country as wealthy as the United States.
“I think this clinic fills a role and tries to patch a gap,” he said. “But truly on a system or a countrywide level, I would love to see that we don’t even have to have a free clinic.”
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