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HAVEN Free Clinic settles into a new home

March 13, 2017
by Christopher Hoffman

Sleepy students trickled into the conference room for an early morning staff meeting at HAVEN Free Clinic on March 4. The bleary-eyed volunteers, who give up their Saturday mornings to provide free medical care and other services to New Haven’s uninsured, munched on apples and peanut butter sandwiches as they listened to a presentation on domestic violence. The talk completed, the day’s session coordinator, Linda Chow, doled out assignments and made announcements.

“You’re going to be working triage,” Chow, a first year-student in public health and one of three executive directors, told one volunteer. “If you have any questions, I will be at pod six.” By 9 a.m., the approximately 75 volunteers had settled into their stations, and five patients sat in the waiting room.

The late winter session was typical, but for one major difference. For the first time since its 2005 founding, HAVEN wasn’t holding its weekly clinic at the Fair Haven Community Health Center in the city’s Fair Haven section. The clinic was marking its first day in a new home, the Yale Physicians’ Building on Howard Avenue near Yale New Haven Hospital.

It’s a transition nearly two years in the making. In 2015, the clinic ran up against federal regulations that barred HAVEN from operating as a free clinic under the umbrella of a federally qualified health center like Fair Haven. HAVEN had to choose between charging patients or finding a new home.

Luckily, a white knight appeared. Yale Medicine, the practice group for Yale School of Medicine and Yale New Haven Hospital physicians, offered HAVEN free use of its offices on Saturdays, a proffer the clinic gratefully accepted.

“Yale Medicine has been extremely generous,” said Elizabeth Roessler, P.A., one of HAVEN’s medical directors and volunteer professionals who supervise and sign off on the students’ diagnoses and treatments. “I think it’s going to be a wonderful collaboration.”

After weeks of moving and practice runs, the clinic opened at its new location on March 4. All that prep work appeared to pay off. Concerns that people would not make the trek from Fair Haven, where most of clinic’s patients live, proved unfounded. About 20 patients, a typical caseload, showed up for medical appointments in spite of bitingly cold weather, Chow said. Another 15 came for appointments with nutrition and education staff. Volunteers said they had taken every opportunity to remind Fair Haven patients of the new location, and the clinic had provided free bus vouchers to help them get there.

The staff--students in medicine, public health, nursing, and the Physician Associate program, as well as Yale College students and law students--and volunteer clinicians, praised the new space. It has everything from state-of-the-art examination rooms to a lab and a pharmacy, they said.

“I think it will work well,” said Ariel Olswanger, a second-year public health student who volunteers in patint services. “I think our patients will like it here.”

The new site will also allow the clinic to serve more patients, said Hannah Alter, a fifth-year medical student and one of the clinic’s three executive directors, along with Chow and nursing student Kaitlin Erickson. “The downtown location means we are going to be able to accommodate more neighborhoods in the city,” Alter said.

As the morning wore on, the routine rhythms of a Saturday session took over. Patients were seen, meds prescribed, and test results phoned in. At about mid-morning, three students left an examination room to compare notes. Then they walked down the hall to consult with Roessler.

Entering the room, the medical student, the physician associate student, and their interpreter, a Yale College student, sat in a half circle around Roessler. Speaking with authority, James Smithy, a fourth-year medical student, peppered Roessler with information: the patient was a Mexican immigrant in his 70s with elevated cholesterol and minor knee problems, at the clinic on a followup appointment to see whether diet and exercise had reduced his LDL. Smithy recommended a new test and considering a statin if the cholesterol level remained too high. The client’s knee pain was not severe enough to warrant medication at this point, he said.

“He’s managing pretty well,” Smithy said in conclusion.

Roessler listened and concurred, complimenting the trio on their evaluation and treatment recommendations. “The students do all the work,” she said after they left. “I have the easy part.”

We’re just very excited to see what’s in store for us in the coming weeks and the years to come.

Linda Chow, executive director, HAVEN Free Clinic

After the morning session was over, Chow proclaimed it a success.

“The directors and volunteers were all very happy with the space,” she said. “We had all been waiting for this day. We’re just very excited to see what’s in store for us in the coming weeks and the years to come.”

Submitted by John Curtis on March 10, 2017