HOUSTON: Nestled behind a grand copper-domed
mosque in a suburb just outside of Houston, Texas,
dozens of patients fill up a waiting room. The buzz in
the room is a mix of Spanish, English, Arabic and Urdu.
A nurse in scrubs
escorts an elderly patient in a burqa out into the
waiting room, as a tall, blonde lady in a floral
sundress makes her way into the exam room along with her
toddler and worried husband.
The two women may
seem to be from opposite ends of the world. But one
thing has forced them to cross paths – the broken
health-care system in the US.
“Regardless of race, colour,
economic or immigration status, we treat whoever walks
through the door,” said sixty-year-old Rafique Jangda,
the executive director of Shifa
Clinic in Sugarland, Texas.
Every Saturday, the clinic offers “no questions-asked
medical services,” which include free check-ups from a
pool of sixteen licensed doctors and specialists. The
clinic is run by a group of two-dozen volunteers, most
of whom are of Pakistani-origin.
emigrated from Pakistan when he was just a student in
the ’70s. Clean-shaven in a pink polo shirt, he tells me
every week the clinic treats 40 patients.
This week, many
diabetes patients fill up the Shifa waiting room to see
Dr Shahid Muhammad, an endocrinologist and a graduate of
the Dow Medical College in Karachi. He has been
volunteering at the Shifa Clinic for a few years now.
“Patients have to face physician
fees, lab costs and prescription costs,” said Dr Shahid,
“once I started coming here, I realised a lot of people
could not afford treating their condition because they
were not insured.”
It can be
financially crippling to be ill in America. Doctors,
medicine and lab tests are very expensive. And people
with chronic conditions like asthma and diabetes get the
worst of it.
In a survey
sponsored by the Kaiser Family Foundation in 2005, 43
per cent of all asthma patients in the US said that
they did not have the money to pay for their treatment.
And according to the American
Diabetes Association, 23.6 million in the US—that’s
7.8 per cent of the total population—have diabetes that
costs a staggering $174 billion every year. That comes
up to about $7,500 per diabetes patient.
Most of that expense
should be covered by the patient’s insurance plan. But
often time’s insurance companies in the US discriminate
against clients with “pre-existing conditions” like
diabetes. So the patient has to dip into their pockets
to manage their expensive condition.
And that’s if they
have insurance. According to the most recent US census
per cent in the US are uninsured. Texas
tops that list, with every fourth person in the
state falling outside the insurance net.
At the Shifa Clinic
they try to fill that gap. Since all doctors are
volunteers, there are no doctors’ fees.
After Jangda, an
engineer by profession, joined the clinic, he soon
realized that expensive prescriptions and lab fees were
another hurdle for patients. So he started a rigorous
outreach program, connecting with other clinics and
building relationships in the health care community.
And his lobbying
efforts paid off. Now, Shifa Clinic has contracts for
low-cost lab work, prescription assistance programs from
pharmaceutical companies and a reciprocal relationship
with other free clinics for services it cannot
offer-like advanced eye screening for diabetes patients.
Now, Dr Shahid can treat some of his patients,
practically free of cost.
Patients do have the
option of paying a non-mandatory $20 fee, which 60 per
cent of the people that walk through the door, choose to
pay. This money, along with Zakat for the community,
helps pay for the operating cost of running this clinic,
and its three sister clinics in the Houston metro area.
All together, the four clinics, under the Houston
Shifa Services Foundation, a registered non-profit,
offers free medical services from a pool of 50 doctors
and over a 100 volunteers. According to their website,
since 1998, the Shifa Clinics have provided services
worth $3 million to the people of Houston.
The clinics were
made possible through the cooperation of the City of
Houston and the Islamic
Society of Greater Houston (ISGH). The city
administration funded the buildings, while the ISGH
donated their property for the clinics and continue to
pay all their utility bills.
Jangda manages the
Sugarland Shifa Clinic, which has six exam rooms,
including two fully equipped for their resident dentist
and their eye doctor. He has recruited 25 youth
volunteers from the area to assist doctors and help run
the clinic. Some volunteers go on to join medical school
and for some young professionals like Hajra Lakhani, who
works in the energy industry, it gives her the
opportunity “to give back to the community.”
The clinic also
provides a chance for newly immigrated Pakistani doctors
to volunteer at the clinic and become familiar with the
health care environment in the US, while they apply for
their licenses and jobs. They aren’t allowed to treat
patients or write prescriptions though.
Ten of the current
pool of licensed doctors, are of Pakistani origin and
most of the rest have Middle Eastern roots.
Although the buzz in
the waiting room was a mix of Hispanic, African-American
and Middle-Eastern patients, Jangda estimates seven out
of 10 patients at the clinic are of South Asian origin.
One of the things
that surprised Jangda when he started volunteering was
the number of Pakistani immigrants that had been living
in the US for years without seeing a doctor.
“When people complain about a 30-minute wait, I know
they’ve never been to a clinic in the US,” said Jangda
throwing up his hands in the air.
That’s where Mahmood
Marfani, the clinic’s Manager of Social Services, comes
had trouble when I first came to America from Pakistan.
Because of unawareness, shyness, language and cultural
issues, I discovered a lot of Pakistani families also
suffering,” said Marfani.
Now retired, he
helps educate patients who come into the clinic about
the options available for them within the health care
system in the US.
Holding what he
called a million dollar paper, Marfani shows a list of
over a dozen federal programmes, including CHIP,
available for low-income un-insured Americans.
“Some families don’t send their
children to school because they cannot afford
immunisation. They don’t know that the CHIP programme
can take care of their expenses.”
Marfani added, “We
are so blessed in America, people just don’t know there
are people and resources out there to help you.”
Sahar Habib Ghazi blogs at www.outsideislamabad.com and
has been selected as a 2010-2011 Journalism Knight
Fellow at Stanford University.
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