Riverside Free Clinic Group photo – Courtesy of Riverside Free Clinic

The Riverside Free Clinic held their first Clinic Day on Oct. 6th, 2021 after transitioning to full operations following the COVID-19 pandemic. The clinic’s services are available for all ages free of charge and a variety of valuable services are provided, from wound care, addiction treatment, chronic care and infection. Jose Garcia, Clinic Monitor and 4th year Bioengineering major, explained that their mission is to serve marginalized people who may not have had the best experience with healthcare as a result of a variety of circumstances from lack of insurance, financial constraints or immigration status.

COVID-19 had an unfortunately harsh impact on the clinic, disrupting the normal flow of operations. Due to pandemic restrictions and precautions, they could only see recurring patients in the early stages of the pandemic and no new patients could be admitted. Many resources were halted or closed, and many committees were understaffed. Only essential committees such as Diabetes, Pharmacy, Labs, Intake and Finance Committees were allowed to remain open. In-person interaction was quite limited throughout the pandemic and a Telehealth platform via the internet had to be utilized. Many changes were needed to accommodate the circumstances but social distancing caused a major disconnect between patients and staff. An Auto Refill program was started for patients who needed refills for their medications for chronic conditions such as diabetes. Online education videos and tutorials were made available for fundamental topics. The transition back had been difficult for the clinic and staff but they have moved back to organized and smooth operations. Patients and staff are thankfully more cautious and health aware as a result of the pandemic. 

With this return to normal operations, many services were able to be provided during their Clinic Day. The RFC Pharmacy and the Needy Meds Committee provides refills for medication and handles prescriptions, entirely for free. The pharmacy is partnered with many universities including UCR, Loma Linda School of Pharmacy, and the Keck Graduate School of USC and is operated by licensed pharmacists and pharmacists in training. Committee coordinators Ashley Moran and Sofia Hormaza explained how Needy Meds provides discounts, coupons and rebates for Medicine, in a similar fashion to the popular GoodRx. The committee runs patient assistant programs that help in finding pharmacies to use discounts and coupons and allow patients who need consistent access to apply and get a year of free medication. Basic needs are also provided through care packages of items such as sanitizer, wipes, masks, tea and more.

The Intake committee provides bureaucratic management and organization for the clinic. It is split into two divisions. Two team members are stationed up front and are tasked with checking in or signing in patients of the clinic. Behind the scenes, are two other team members who process all the information given during the sign in and make files accordingly. The Diabetes Management Committee is available for diabetic patients or any other blood sugar related concerns. Their goal is to provide enough supplies and resources such as insulin, lancets and recipes for their patients. 

The Lung Health Division works with patients with asthma and other respiratory conditions, including addictions to smoking. These patients are aided through patches and other nicotine medication. Progress is tracked as part of the Smoking Cessation Program and improvement and cooperation leads to access to more resources.

Daniel Woo, an alumnus of UCR, joined the committee for personal reasons. His father was a smoker who took years to quit and Woo witnessed the difficult process. DeAndre Siringoringo and Valine Bebawy, both expressed how smoking is a common occurrence in their respective countries, Indonesia and Egypt, and had family who also found it difficult to quit, especially without a support system. Corey Paget, another fourth-year student, also joined the committee, as his grandmother was a pulmonologist in Turkey, therefore he knew from a young age the importance of Lung Health. This is especially pertinent in Riverside County, an area that is heavy in pollution and addiction.

Other volunteers had a variety of reasons to be a part of the clinic. Many have lived in the Inland Empire, and have seen the disparities, especially in Riverside, of the underserved and underprivileged. Personnel Manager Jasmine Kazemi Gwizdala’s desire to volunteer stems from her family roots as her parents were refugees from Afghanistan who arrived to this country with little to nothing and experienced discrimination. Andre Sam, a fourth-year biology major and nutrition officer, is of Laotian descent, which is considered to be a minority population even in Asia. As such, Sam’s community often deals with inadequate access to healthcare resources, often due to financial constraints. Anna Tran, a fourth-year psychology major, aspired to be a hospital social worker and in search of a small-scale clinical setting, was welcomed by the RFC thanks to the interdisciplinary nature of the clinic.

Many of the volunteers are Medical Students eager to gain a deeper understanding of the Medical World. Hollie St. Claire and Gary Lirungan are the Medical Student Managers and monitor the Medical Students, who will often interview and examine patients as well as conduct medical screenings. According to St. Claire, “The Medical Students are able to make a difference in the community by applying what they learn in their classrooms to help their patients. And in turn, the community and patients help these students learn more about the world of healthcare, in a special symbiotic relationship.”

Garcia, Gwizdala, and others expressed their desire to see more free clinics and that too many medical officials value profit over care. Healthcare should instead be more interdisciplinary and should involve every aspect of care with a focus on prevention. 

Through the clinic, medicine is viewed through the lens of the patient. Gwizdala expressed how connecting with patients allows her to truly feel and empathize with their struggles. The RFC has a special focus on humanitarianism first in medicine. A staff of volunteers view each patient holistically as opposed to simply referring to them as a diagnosis. Patients are to be treated like family as it caters to an atmosphere of empathy and trust, welcoming to all. At the clinic, the volunteers see the amount of trust patients would place in a provider 一 patients were more willing to open up in a safe environment. 

Garcia and Gwizdala both considered the RFC to be a highlight of their undergrad experience. Dr. Nathan McLaughlin, M.D., encapsulates healthcare in the country stating that, “In a perfect world, there would be no need for the RFC.” But in reality, free clinics are necessary in the services they provide and the passionate volunteers who aid the patients.

If you would like to learn more about the clinic or would like to volunteer, visit their website at: http://www.riversidefreeclinic.com/en/