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Runners brave rain and chill to support HAVEN Free Clinic

Yale Medicine Magazine, 2016 - Spring


More than 230 runners and walkers braved drizzle and chilly temperatures to take part in the third annual ¡ANDA! 5K walk and run to raise money for the HAVEN Free Clinic in the city’s Fair Haven neighborhood. Staffed and run by more than 400 Yale student volunteers—everyone from medical students to undergraduates—the clinic provides free medical care and other services to the neighborhood’s uninsured residents.

Since 2005 the clinic has operated in space rented from the Fair Haven Community Health Center. Every Saturday morning it serves about 30 patients. Students run all aspects of the clinic, including seeing and diagnosing patients under the supervision of volunteer physicians, physician associates, and nurse practitioners and midwives from the School of Medicine and the New Haven community. The clinic is operated almost entirely through annual grants from corporations, alumni, and the School of Medicine. The ¡ANDA! Run, which brought in more than $25,000, is its biggest fundraiser.

The need for health care in Fair Haven is especially acute, said Elyssa Noce, HAVEN’s director of student recruitment and co-director of the event. Noce put the neighborhood’s uninsured rate at 40 percent, thanks largely to its large population of undocumented immigrants, who are ineligible for Obamacare. Many patients are newly arrived from Mexico, Central America, or South America and some have not seen a doctor for as long as a decade. The students, working under the supervision of the health care professionals, often diagnose such illnesses as hypertension and diabetes. “Patients often come in and they have a lot of complex issues,” said Noce, a student at the School of Nursing. “It’s very satisfying because it’s a little bit of a challenge.”

The clinic ensures that all residents of Fair Haven have access to good health care regardless of immigration status, said neighborhood activist Lee Cruz, a member of the Chatham Square Neighborhood Association. “I believe health care is a right,” said Cruz, whose 5-year-old son Pablo took part in the run.

The event brought a festive atmosphere to Jocelyn Square on the edge of Fair Haven. Organizers served up coffee and snacks as students spilled from Yale shuttle buses delivering them from campus. Health care professionals, neighborhood residents and activists trickled in, and the square was soon awash in spandex- and shorts-clad runners stretching and warming up.

Among them was medical student Mehida Alexandre, who volunteers at HAVEN. She feels a powerful connection to the clinic and its patients. A Haitian-American who arrived in the United States at 17, she knows what it’s like to have no health insurance. “It was hard to go to the doctor because you knew you couldn’t afford it,” she said of her early years in the United States. The clinic, she said, is her way “to pay it forward.”

By about 10 a.m., a phalanx of runners was packed behind the start line. A blast from a boat horn sent them scurrying down Humphrey Street. They crossed the bridge over the Mill River and galloped into Fair Haven, a peninsula of mostly single-family homes and duplexes that has welcomed successive waves of immigrants since the 19th century. Competitors ran to the Quinnipiac River, marking the neighborhood’s eastern edge, and back.

Among those running the course was Peter J. Ellis, M.D., M.P.H., assistant professor of medicine, and faculty advisor to the students who run HAVEN. After finishing the race, he stood watching other runners come in and praised the clinic and its hard-working student volunteers. “The moral test of a community is how we care for the most vulnerable,” Ellis said. “I think by that measure, the students of HAVEN are very inspiring.”

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