UCI’s Shifa Lends Helping Hands

Courtesy of Rahaf Baker

A little boy peeked out from behind the white curtain. His face immediately broke into a smile that stretched from cheek to cheek, and he promptly ran out the door as fast as his little legs could carry him.

A few seconds later, his mother, Ghazala Khaleeque, stepped out, checked that her son was with his friends and vigorously shook Dr. Tipu Khan’s hand over a table full of syringes, gloves, blood-pressure cuffs, antiseptic towelettes, instant cold packs and needles.

It turned out that her son’s stomach pain was actually gastritis, an inflammation of the lining of the stomach.

Khaleeque, on the other hand, was diagnosed with hypertension, or high blood pressure. She never knew she had it and would never have found out if it weren’t for UC Irvine’s Shifa organization.

“I am so grateful for everybody here,” Khaleeque said. “This was really helpful and great for me. I learned so much.”

Comprised of two Harbor-UCLA doctors, an eight-member board, approximately 20 medical students and countless undergraduate students, Shifa was first established in September of 2009 with the sole mission to provide continuous aid and free clinics to low-income and underserved groups. Apart from the doctors, all of the students that set up and run this free clinic are UCI undergraduate and medical students.

“It gives me such a great, rewarding feeling,” said Rahaf Baker, director of the undergraduate students. “I knew I always wanted to offer health care to people who have no access to it. There is a barrier for them, where they either are afraid to reach out or they simply don’t know things like free clinics exist to help them.”

Together, one undergraduate and one medical student first check the patient’s vision. After calculating their Body Mass Index (BMI), they record the patient’s history, discuss their complaints and complete the differential.

The students must also present their diagnosis to either Dr. Khan or Dr. Cesar Barba. At least one doctor goes into the station and discusses the case with students.

UCI’s Shifa organization was modeled after Dr. Khan’s free clinic at UC Davis, which has since grown into a full-run clinic.

The UC Davis free clinic, which is open to patients every day, offers imaging and laboratory equipment, in addition to a pharmacy. According to Dr. Khan, this model typically costs around $35,000 per year to operate.

Since it is just in its early phases, UCI’s version only conducts free screening, education and prevention and referrals and follow-ups, a model that costs less than $10,000 a year.

One of the greatest challenges for Shifa is getting funding and finding a place that will allow them to do this service for the community.

So far, mainly mosques and churches have welcomed them; however, they hope to secure more locations and grants once they file for non-profit status, something they are working hard to obtain.

But the greatest part of all this is the doctor-to-student interaction. During a rare slow period, Dr. Barba attracted nearly 10 students who eagerly gathered around him and listened as he described real-life cases and diagnoses. He offered them tips on how to deal with diabetics and conduct stress tests. He had them practice on each other, observing how contacts impact the doctor’s view of a patient’s eyes.

“I grew up in a family with no insurance so I definitely know what it means to be medically underserved,” Dr. Barba shared. “Here, students are doing most of the work and they have the chance to engage and get involved, while understanding first-hand the need of the community.”

Valerie Chan and Stephanie Kong are the two medical student co-directors, who jumped at the opportunity to start a free clinic when approached by Dr. Barba and Dr. Khan.

“My whole motivation is to serve underserved communities,” Chan said. “I’m thrilled to be a part of starting it up and see how it happens behind the scenes.”

“I’ve always wanted to be involved in ethnic health care. I’ve learned so much in class, but now I am actually able to apply it and visually see everything out of the textbook come to life. Plus, those doctors – they’re the prototype of what I should be doing, which is extremely inspiring,” Kong added.

This is the same feeling that translates down to undergraduate students of any year.

When the Islamic Society of Orange County needed to use the conference room for midday services, Shifa volunteers quietly stepped outside. The doctors and directors worked on the non-profit application, while medical student volunteers clamored around a laptop, inputting all of the patients’ feedback surveys into an Excel spreadsheet to see where they could improve. Others stood aside, carrying on intense, medical discussions on what they had just learned.

“It’s so cool – I have all these random facts I can just tell people now,” said Elizabeth Chui, a fourth-year public health science and international studies double major. “Did you know you can tell if a person has anemia by pressing their fingernails? Or you can see if a patient has allergies by looking at the back of their mouth, which I actually saw on someone today?”

Shifa doesn’t expect to stop at free clinics, though. They are pushing to partner up with the “Be the Match Foundation” which urges people to join the bone marrow registry. They also have their sights set on sponsoring walk-a-thons. Shifa hopes to offer a similar free clinic for the Vietnamese and Asian community in the near future.

“This clinic in Garden Grove was just the first step to let us know what to expect,” Baker said.

At the end of the day, they all know that they will continue to advertise their cause, apply for funding and grants and, most importantly, serve those who need it most. And the people they are helping are certainly thankful.

“This is good – please keep it up,” said a patient, Ahmad, as he walked out the door. “It’s amazing to witness people serving people, even though they are not bringing in money for themselves.”