Joseph Cook, a Jackson Free Clinic medical student volunteer, asks Wilbert McGee some questions during a December 10 health screening event held in conjunction with Shower Power.
Joseph Cook, a Jackson Free Clinic medical student volunteer, asks Wilbert McGee some questions during a December 10 health screening event held in conjunction with Shower Power.
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‘Leaving our comfort zone’: JFC goes on the road

Published on Monday, December 20, 2021

By: Gary Pettus,

Some patients who depend on the Jackson Free Clinic for medical and dental care have no permanent shelter or roof of their own, wandering from place to place.

The students who run the clinic have decided to be more like them.

Jojo Dodd

“That means getting out of the clinic and leaving our comfort zone,” said JoJo Dodd of Picayune, a fourth-year medical student at UMMC and the clinic’s current chair and chief operations officer. “It means taking our work to them.”

To be sure, the Jackson Free Clinic, which has offered physician-supervised free health care to the homeless and the uninsured for two decades, still has a home in Jackson at 925 Martin Luther King Jr. Drive; and, certainly, its doors remain open, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. every Saturday.

But for the past year or so, its student volunteers have decided to give the other days of the week a chance, often leaving their “home” in an outreach mission that seems to grow in scope every month, magnifying its impact.

“You’ve got a ton of energy with the students,” Dodd said, explaining this burst of movement and enterprise. “It meets a moment where you have, more than ever, people who need access to health care.

“The demand for what we do is increasing; we have taken it upon ourselves to meet it and take down whatever barriers we can.”

 And it all may have started with a shot in the arm.

Thais Tonore Walden

“Getting out the COVID vaccines, taking them to the community, spurred on a big outreach in general,” said Dr. Thais Tonore Walden of Jackson, the clinic’s medical director, who retired two years ago from the Medical Center as professor of family medicine.

With vaccines supplied by the Mississippi State Department of Health, the students took them to the Hispanic community first, said Michael Hohl of Oxford, another M4 and the clinic’s chief outreach officer.

Michael Hohl

“You can get a vaccine in virtually every part of town; we’re saturated with vaccines,” he said. “So, we decided to look out for patient populations that are underserved, and we realized that the Hispanic community was experiencing significant vaccine inequity. It is an almost untouched group.”

Working with such advocacy groups as the Mississippi Immigrants Rights Alliance, the clinic has staged at least a half-dozen vaccine drives throughout the state this year, including one early this month in Forest; there, the students provided about 120 boosters.

Alex Fratesi

Led by third-year medical student Alex Fratesi of Leland, JFC’s new, bi-monthly Hispanic Clinic is helping that community find health care more easily.

“The lack of access to care, food, transportation, and other social determinants of health that the Latinx community faces in the state is tremendous,” said Leslye Bastos Ortega, project manager, family medicine-minority health at UMMC, who has worked with JFC.

“Oftentimes, many are not aware of the available resources and, when they are, they’re faced with language barriers or with misinformation about COVID.”

Fearing for their legal or job status, they may be unwilling to reach out to governmental or other institutions, she said.

“Many feel criminalized for trying to survive among these communities, which is why it is crucial to have organizations, students, and health professionals continue to address these barriers with empathy and the willingness to assist them.”

Of course, the marginalized include those the clinic has served from the beginning: people without homes. For more than a year now, the volunteers have worked with Shower Power, which offers clothing, food and a hot shower to those experiencing homelessness.

“We love seeing [the students] come on site,” said Mary Ann Kirby, Shower Power’s director of operations. “They have diagnosed several health situations, one of which was a real crisis with one of our friends who had extremely high blood pressure.

“They were in the right place at the right time for her, and they probably saved her from something pretty dramatic later on. We are always grateful for them.”

Jason Blackledge, left, gets a COVID vaccination from medical student Michael Hohl.

On a blustery December morning in the Jackson’s railroad district around Commerce Street, Jason Blackledge took his seat outdoors at a folding table, lifted the sleeve of his Wendy’s Frosty T-shirt and took a needle to the arm from Michael Hohl.

“It’s my second,” Blackledge said, holding up two fingers.

Without the teamwork between Shower Power and the Jackson Free Clinic, Blackledge and many others may have never received the first one. Around 1,700 COVID vaccines have done their work this year, thanks to the clinic’s students.

During the event in the railroad district, people lined up alongside Commerce Street for their COVID vaccines or boosters and for blood glucose and blood pressure screenings administered by Hohl, Dodd and their medical school classmate, Joseph Cook of Flowood.

It was just one of the clinic’s 92 outreach actions so far this year, touching the lives of more than 1,800 people around the state.

In Jackson the students have also forged partnerships with Stewpot Community Services, offering, for instance, pop-up psychiatry clinics; and Uber Health, which gives patients free rides wherever the Jackson Free Clinic sets up its vaccination tents and tables.

Hali Peterson

“Since I’ve been involved, we have grown exponentially in all our main areas: care, education and outreach,” said third-year medical student Hali Peterson of Jackson, chief academic officer for the clinic.

“And now we are providing medical specialty services that are at the clinic certain times of the month or the year: psychiatry, dermatology, radiology, gynecology, ultrasound.

“We are offering one-on-one nutrition counseling, virtually, in a partnership with GRITS – Growing Resilience in the South. Using laptops in the clinic, our patients get free sessions with dieticians.

“The Jackson Free Clinic is making an immediate change; I saw this when I was coming into medical school, and that’s why I became involved.”

Sunna Savani of Ocean Springs is as involved as anyone, organizing as she did JFC’s newest addition: the social health clinic. It, too, is a species of outreach, putting its patients in touch with other, valuable services beyond the clinic’s doors.

Sunna Savani

“You don’t have to have a lot of health care knowledge to help in the clinic,” said the second-year medical student, “just a passion for patients. And our patients often need somewhere to sleep, something to eat, something warm to wear.

“It seemed that we were missing this essential part of patient care, so that’s how the social health clinic started. To begin with, we adapted the screening process at EversCare to our clinic.”

Each JFC patient who agrees to a screening is asked questions that identify their needs – for a place to stay, food, transportation, personal hygiene and more. “And then we connect them with resources,” Savani said.   

“We give them printed handouts and a bunch of phone numbers: ‘Call this number on Monday.’ We help them fill out the forms they need to get to these resources.”

To improve their patients’ chances, the social health clinic has added patient navigators, or guides through the health care system. And this clinic-within-a-clinic is open to all student volunteers, no matter their career choice.

Maura Gabriel receives a COVID vaccination from second-year medical student Chandler Winstead during a May 22, Jackson Free Clinic outreach event in Forest.
Maura Gabriel receives a COVID vaccination from second-year medical student Chandler Winstead during a May 22, Jackson Free Clinic outreach event in Forest.

That means 930 have worked in or for the clinic this year. More than half are medical students, while dental students make up 16 percent of the total. But students from all other five UMMC campus schools have also contributed – pharmacy, health related professions, nursing, graduate studies and population health.

“We’re trying to meet needs that a typical brick-and-mortar setup with a sign out front isn’t going to fix,” Dodd said. “I don’t believe a student-run, free clinic should be the answer to these problems. But the problems are there, and students with energy and compassion are refusing to wait until down the road to make a real impact for our neighbors.

“We aren’t going to fix the problems, but we can do our part to help.”