Free health clinic for Chicago’s underserved communities

By Serena Yeh
Medill Reports

At about noon on a recent Sunday, three elderly Chinese walked into the Indian American Medical Association Charitable Foundation, a free health clinic that operates on the weekends.

The couple was at the clinic, located in West Rogers Park, to obtain medicine refills. They brought along a relative to help translate Mandarin to English for them.

Speaking through the translator, the elderly woman – Medill Reports agreed to the clinic’s request not to identify the patients – said they have been visiting the clinic on West Peterson Avenue, from their Chinatown home every three months for the past two years.

She said they visit only this clinic because the doctors are nice and the pharmacy provides free medicine which, as they are a low-income family, is an important help.

The clinic, founded in 1994, provides free primary healthcare services for Chicago’s underserved community, said its executive director, Chris Zala.

“We’re in an area of Chicago which is probably one of the most culturally diverse areas and, at the same time, it consists of members from the immigrant, refugee population. The immigrant population that are here, that are documented, do not have health insurance or are underinsured,” said Zala, 52, who was pleasantly surprised to hear that patients also travelled from Chinatown.

The physicians who started the clinic wanted to “give back to the community,” he said. “Primarily because they knew that the populations that lived here often are just getting started. They don’t have the economic means to be able to afford insurance and care.”

On top of providing free access, the clinic also operates in a “culturally competent” manner, said Zala.

Clinic volunteers are mindful certain communities prefer seeing a female doctor, understand the dietary practices of various cultures and provide translation and interpretation services, he said.

Zala said that most patients are from South Asia, followed by other Asian and Middle Eastern communities.

The clinic has volunteer translators from Northwestern University and also operates as a training clinic for medical students, with some able to speak languages such as Korean and Mandarin.

The clinic’s receptionist, Dr. Gurdeep S. Nagi, understands Hindi, Urdu and Punjabi, which helps him when signing in patients and understanding why they are coming to the clinic. He added that the most common ailments the clinic sees are hypertension, diabetes and high cholesterol.

“It’s probably one of the more vital things because when they understand it in terms of in English, they might not get the full effect or the connotation of like, ‘Oh, this is really important.’ When they hear it in their own native language, there’s a comfort level that comes with it. They feel more relaxed, they are more attuned and they just understand it better,” Nagi said.

Other than language differences, the immigrant population also struggles with taking medicine and eating right, said Dr Rambha Radhakrishnan, medical director at the clinic, adding that most patients were immigrants.

“They may not be recent immigrants. They might be here some time, but they have never assimilated to the mainstream United States culture, so they have their own thinking, and it is our job to slowly, slowly change the thinking and the culture and say, ‘You know what, you can do it differently. You do not have to eat this or you have to take your medicine this way,’ things like that,” she said.

The clinic, which is run mainly by volunteers except for three staff members, ultimately hopes to provide services more days of the week, Zala said.

“People can’t afford to choose when they get sick. We want to be able to provide services here, if we can, seven days a week,” he said.

Photo at top: The Indian American Medical Association Charitable Foundation free health clinic, which opens on weekends from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m., is located on West Peterson Avenue. (Serena Yeh/MEDILL)