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Meharry’s student-run free clinic helps underserved

Dr. James Sullivan with student volunteers from the Meharry 12 South Community Clinic.

Now in its second year, the 12 South Clinic continues to address healthcare disparities by providing free, high-quality care.

The patient in his mid-30s was an asthmatic suffering from recurring attacks of coughing and labored breathing. He had a job but could not afford the expensive inhaler he badly needed. A visit to 12 South Community Clinic, a free clinic in Nashville, Tenn., that is run by students who attend Meharry Medical College, changed his life and brought him to tears.

"I remember this guy. He had asthma, and he suffered with his asthma all the time," said Nick Kramer, 26, a third-year Meharry student from Seattle, Wash., and the clinic's co-executive director. “An albuterol inhaler can be really pricey. It costs like a hundred dollars, and he couldn't pay for it. So we bought him his own inhaler, and he broke down crying. He was so thankful that we were able to help him."

Now in its second year, the 12 South Clinic was founded by Meharry students to address healthcare disparities by providing free, high-quality care to Nashville’s underserved populations. The clinic also serves as a training ground for students who work under the supervision of faculty physicians.

The clinic is funded by donations and grants, including support from The United Methodist Church through the Black College Fund. Administered by the General Board of Higher Education and Ministry, the BCF is a churchwide fund that supports the 11 UM historically Black colleges and universities in the Southeastern and South Central jurisdictions—the largest number of historically Black institutions of higher learning supported by any church body in the United States.

Jorie Jones, left, Meharry 12 South Community Clinic student volunteer, works with Courtney James, a student case manager at the clinic.

“The 12 South Clinic is a precious gift to the community and fills an important niche in primary care and critical diagnostic testing,” said Cynthia Bond Hopson, GBHEM’s assistant general secretary for the Black College Fund and Ethnic Concerns. “Meharry students and faculty don’t just learn the school’s motto, ‘Worship of God through Service to Mankind.’ They put their hearts and souls into living it out. Meharry students understand early and often that they are the difference between visionary, culturally sensitive intervention, and poor health and despair. We praise God and applaud their efforts.”

Every Thursday night, eight to ten patients normally receive primary care at 12 South Clinic, which uses facilities operated during normal business hours by United Neighborhood Health Services, a private, nonprofit network of primary care clinics and health programs based in Nashville.

Although appointments are made weekly for 12 people, there are usually no-shows, and walk-ins typically make up half of the patients. Each is seen for an hour, first by two students—a third- or fourth-year student and a first- or second-year student—and then by the attending physician along with the student team.

One night recently during the height of the flu season, 75 people came for free flu shots. When word spread that 12 South was offering these shots, 10 to 20 people began coming each week for the immunizations.

Since it opened in September of 2012, the clinic has provided more than $20,000 in free care to its patients.

As the number of patients seeking primary care rises, organizers are considering how to increase the clinic’s capacity, either by adding additional students and another physician on Thursday nights or by opening the clinic a second night each week.

In addition, the clinic hopes to offer free dental services and perhaps the expertise of student volunteers from the social work program at nearby Tennessee State University.

Naomi Bitow, left, a student case manager at the Meharry 12 South Community Clinic chats with Jasmine Figgins, a patient at the clinic. Photos courtesy of Meharry Medical College.

“I feel like I'm directly helping a patient and directly changing his or her life,” said Veronica Ralls, 23, a second-year student from Springfield, Mass., and the clinic’s co-executive director. “You help so many different people. Just to see the difference that we make in their lives is really meaningful to me.”

The clinic is a blessing for patients like Jeffery Reynolds, 51, who lost his job and his health insurance last summer. On a recent Thursday night, Reynolds was making his third monthly visit to the clinic for treatment of his hypertension, arthritis, and painful gout in his ankles.

“Everybody's been great. Actually, I've had results from the treatments I've gotten,” said Reynolds, whose high blood pressure is now in check. “The medication I've been on for the gout has helped me a lot. I mean it's still there, but it's kind of tolerable.”

Dr. James Sullivan, an endocrinologist and an associate professor of family and community medicine at Meharry, volunteers once a month at 12 South.

“A lot of the people we see are working poor people that actually do have jobs but don't have insurance. And we see a significant number of people who have jobs or children, and they can't get off during the day,” said Sullivan, who also serves as a faculty director of the clinic.

“The reason we put [the clinic] here (south of downtown Nashville) is because nobody else is serving this neighborhood. We're right in the middle of a place where people need us,” Sullivan said.

Tom Gillem, freelance writer and photographer based in Brentwood, Tenn.

One of seven apportioned giving opportunities of The United Methodist Church, the Black College Fund provides financial support to maintain solid, challenging academic programs; strong faculties; and well-equipped facilities at 11 United Methodist-related historically black colleges and universities. Please encourage your leaders and congregations to support the Black College Fund apportionment at 100 percent.

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