Students Gain Experience in Clinic

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When senior Sarah Husain set out to do community service, she never imagined it would soon consume her life.

A premed student, Husain says her job as coordinator of the information and resource section at the Berkeley Free Clinic gives her the hands-on experience with patients she would not otherwise get until medical school.

The work makes her feel more connected to the community and more eager to get involved, she adds.

"This is upbeat, not the usual lab job," she says. "When you come here, you get to do as much as you can and as much as you want to. The only constraint is how much time you want to put in."

Husain says she schedules her work at the clinic around her classes, working a total of eight hours a week. She started almost a year ago, wandering into the clinic job almost by mistake.

"I just felt like I wanted to do something in the community, to see what's out there," she says.

Husain is one of approximately 50 UC Berkeley students who volunteer at the clinic, which offers a variety of medical service to those who cannot afford to pay for them.

The clinic serves ordinary people who are experiencing a run of bad luck, she says. The sliding scale fees at other nearby clinics may be too high for many customers to afford.

"Paying even small fees for other clinics is just too much for some people," she says. "Our typical client just moved into the area. They're in between jobs and without insurance. They're just caught at a bad time."

Many UC Berkeley students use clinic dentists because the Tang Center does not provide dental care, Husain says.

In the waiting room, bright red chairs line the walls. Approximately 15 people lounge on them and sip tea, talking quietly in groups and taking shelter from the rain outside.

Patients in the waiting room say they enjoy this casual atmosphere.

Mace Patka, waiting in line for the dentist, says this visit is one of several he has made over the past few months to have teeth pulled.

"They do a really good job," he says. "My teeth are really bad. When they pull them, they shatter and break into pieces. But the dentists help me a lot."

Patka says he also comes to the clinic to rest in the waiting room or to go to the food kitchen in the church upstairs.

He says that, unlike in most restaurants, clinic workers do not look at him strangely when he walks in the door.

"You don't need to ask if you need to use the restroom," he says. "They're good-hearted people here."

Leanell Austin, a former homeless woman who now works with the poor, says the clinic fills a need in Berkeley.

"It's just a good place," she says. "The people enjoy it and you don't have to be homeless to come here. People just come to sit and get out of the rain, and they don't hassle them."

Austin says her own experience on the streets made her aware of the need for affordable medical services.

"The places didn't harass you like they do now," she says. "It's harder for the homeless, for my clients to get the resources they need - even when you make things available for them. The people I knew on the streets are still there 10 years later. It breaks my heart."

She says even homeless people who choose to remain on the streets should not be denied medical services, adding that the Berkeley Free Clinic plays a valuable role in providing these services.

"If you choose to be homeless, that's a valid choice you can make," she says. "You should not be denied services. There is no stereotypical homeless person. People have made choices in life, and some turned out well and some didn't."

The clinic, located at 2339 Durant Ave., was opened in 1969 as an emergency infirmary to serve Berkeley's growing homeless population, says a clinic medic who chose not to identify herself.

The medic says the clinic enjoys "very, very strong community backing" and that between 30 and 50 percent of its money comes from the local area. The rest of the money comes mostly from government grants, donations and fundraisers, she adds.

The clinic is run as a cooperative effort by 200 volunteers and nearly 20 paid professionals, who attend weekly meetings to make decisions concerning the organization.

"This place is run by people who have a really strong sense of community and a history of volunteerism," she says. "We depend on people who want to go beyond the bare minimum, who embody community and collective spirit. The clinic runs only because everyone puts their hands into it."

The medic says some of the clinic's volunteers contribute between 20 and 30 hours a week, although most work between five and 10.

Medics trained by the clinic are required to remain for two years, she adds. The six-month, 20-hour-a-week training teaches volunteers to deal with everything from tetanus shots to sexually transmitted diseases.

Volunteers trained as medics treat patients, aided by volunteer doctors and nurses. The medic says the clinic is currently in the midst of recruiting volunteers.

She adds that the clinic does not treat chronic conditions, although it refers such patients to one of the approximately 30 similar clinics in the Bay Area or to a public hospital.

"The basic medical care we're giving out is stuff that you don't need a license to practice," she says. "We don't really go for the doctor on a pedestal thing."

She adds that the clinic sets itself apart by not charging even small fees for its services.

"We serve a marginalized population," she says. "They don't have enough to pay what is often an exorbitant amount of money in other places."

The clinic's spirit of cooperation and comfortable atmosphere permeate its interactions with patients, she adds.


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