‘Medicine is still an apprenticeship’: WMed students gain valuable experience, get a chance to give back through volunteering at local clinics 

Holy Family Healthcare (Student Clinics)
Third-year student Duncan Polot treats a patient at the Holy Family Healthcare clinic in Hartford.

When he makes the drive from Kalamazoo to Hartford to volunteer at Holy Family Healthcare, Michael Chavarria, a third-year student at WMed, says he is quickly reminded of why he decided to become a doctor.

The pediatric clinic, located near downtown Hartford, operates under the leadership of Dr. Don Bouchard and serves as a holistic resource for medical care, food and clothing for the children and families of rural migrant workers in Van Buren County.

Since the summer of 2017, Chavarria and several other WMed students have volunteered at the clinic, providing care for patients and learning under the wing of Dr. Bouchard and Dr. Cheryl Dickson, the medical school’s associate dean for Health Equity and Community Affairs. 

The clinic, which opened in 2014, is one of two where WMed students and the medical school’s Student Physician Engagement Clinics student interest group (SPEC) are getting a chance to volunteer their time while improving their clinical skills and – more importantly – learning the value of service and giving back to the community.

“It’s definitely a great skill builder,” said Chavarria, who leads the Latino Medical Student Association (LMSA) at WMed. “But I think you could get a lot of that without coming here. What I tell students is they’re going to get good grades, you’re going to study hard, you’re going to do well on tests, that’s’ always going to happen, but you don’t need to put off being a good person … This is the best thing I’ve done at this school. It is what I want to do with the rest of my life.”

LMSA has partnered with SPEC to coordinate students’ twice-a-month visits to the clinic in Hartford. Members of SPEC, under the guidance of Dr. Dickson, also volunteer twice a month at the Medicine-Pediatrics Clinic at WMed’s Oakland Drive Campus.

Holy Family Healthcare (Student Clinics)
Fourth-year student Ana Villalobos, left, and third-year student Kristina Le, center, discuss a patient case with Dr. Cheryl Dickson, associate dean for Health Equity and Community Affairs, at the Holy Family Healthcare clinic in Hartford.

At Holy Family Healthcare, up to eight WMed students are volunteering their time during one Friday and one Saturday a month. On a recent Saturday in October, the group consisted of first-, second-, third- and fourth-year students from the medical school. 

The time at the clinic for the students provides a chance for an in-depth experience and interactions with patients that will serve them well, especially during their third-year clerkships and fourth-year rotations. First- and second-year students are tasked with compiling patient histories under the eye of third- and fourth-year students and then present their findings to the attending physicians, Dr. Bouchard and Dr. Dickson.

The experience is much the same for students who are volunteering at the Med-Peds Clinic at the Oakland Drive Campus two Wednesdays a month. First-year students greet and show patients to their room, take vitals and ask about a patient’s chief complaint.

They’re followed by a second-year student who conducts the patient history and physical under the leadership of a third- or fourth-year student. The more senior students then assist one another with presenting the patient’s case to the attending physicians, either Dr. Dickson or Dr. Joseph D’Ambrosio, WMed’s associate dean for Clinical Affairs.

“I think the most valuable thing is I got to learn a lot from the M2s, M3s and M4s about what questions to ask during a physical exam, what kinds of questions to consider in terms of a patient assessment and plan,” said Anna Trinh, a first-year student who recently volunteered for the first time at the clinic in Hartford. “I feel good that I’m helping out. I want to be able to help people as much as I can during my education.

“I don’t want it to be just about me, I want it to be about the people I’m serving.”

The opportunities for WMed students to volunteer at the Med-Peds Clinic at the Oakland Drive Campus and the clinic in Hartford came about through the work of students that began in 2015 with the idea of starting a student-run clinic at WMed.

Med-Peds Clinic at Oakland Drive Campus (Student Clinics)
Second-year student Robert Cai, center, and fourth-year student Patricia Choi, right, discuss a patient case with Dr. Joseph D'Ambrosio, associate dean for Clinical Affairs, at the Med-Peds Clinic at the Oakland Drive Campus.

Students from SPEC were pivotal in establishing a structure for students to be able to volunteer and gain experience in a clinic setting. By the summer of 2017, students began volunteering at both clinic sites.

The leadership board of SPEC is made up of M3 Sulin Wu, who is the program’s director, as well as Patricia Choi (M4), Rohan Kedar (M4), David Lee (M3), Grace Parikh-Walter (M3), Amy Rechenberg (M3), Ana Villalobos (M4), and Sam Yost (M4).

“The great thing is that from their diversity they just bring this wealth of knowledge, this wealth of approaches to things,” Dr. Bouchard said of the students who have volunteered at Holy Family Healthcare. “That the school is allowing them, but also that the students have the initiative on their own to enrich their education and their lives by enriching the lives of others who are less fortunate, is amazing.”

Dr. Bouchard’s clinic in Hartford began as a mobile medical unit in 2012 before he opened the clinic at its current location in Hartford in 2014. The venture followed what was a 25-year career for him in contemporary healthcare and a vision of providing what he said was a more holistic approach to patient care.

The clinic focuses on providing healthcare to the children and families of migrant workers in Van Buren County. In the summer, the county boasts the highest per capita rate of migrant workers of any county in the state of Michigan, Dr. Bouchard said.

“This is the population I wanted to serve,” Dr. Bouchard said.

In addition to providing pediatric care, the clinic in Hartford boasts a food pantry and patients in need can also find clothing to wear and other items. On a recent Saturday in October, Chavarria arrived with numerous things to donate, including clothes, bicycles and a toaster oven.

“I’ve been impressed with the level of compassion, the level of understanding and the level of global thinking with the students and their understanding of where they are in relation to others,” Dr. Bouchard said. “They’re very insightful.”

Dr. Cheryl Dickson and Dr. Don Bouchard
Dr. Cheryl Dickson, left, and Dr. Don Bouchard.

Dr. Dickson said the skills that students are practicing and learning during their time at the two clinics will serve them well while in medical school and later in residency. At both sites, she said students are also getting an opportunity to treat – and to give back – to patient populations that, historically, are underserved and plagued by health disparities.

“I think it’s important because they learn in the classroom about vulnerable populations and to actually have experience working with an underserved population helps them understand some of those needs,” Dr. Dickson said. “Every community has populations that are underserved, so this experience is something they need to have.

“It also provides a level of empathy we want all students to have,” Dr. Dickson added. “It’s that empathy that gets embedded early enough and it helps them know that part of their charge is service and that’s what being a physician is, being of service to others and being of service to those who have a need.”

Wu, who began pushing for a student-run clinic when she arrived at the medical school in 2015, said the time she and other students are spending at the two clinics is valuable because of the educational aspects of the experience, as well as the connections students get to make with the community and with each other. She said the experience students gain also serves to rejuvenate them and remind them – much like Chavarria – of the reasons why they decided to go to medical school.

“For us, as M2s, this is going to be great for us as we move into third year,” said Jamil Khondker, a second-year student who volunteered on a recent Wednesday in November at the Med-Peds Clinic with Wu, Patricia Choi and fellow M2 Robert Cai. “I think each level of student can have a role here … I really think this is good practice.”

Dr. D’Ambrosio said he thinks the experience is valuable for students because it gives them an opportunity to work closely with medical school faculty.

“Medicine is still an apprenticeship,” Dr. D’Ambrosio said. “The way doctors learn is by seeing patients and the more you see, the better trained you are. It also helps them to see that there’s not a script for everything.

“I think this is an opportunity to up their game.”