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Engage Your Community through Healthcare

by Scott T. Keller, DO, FAAFP, and Bill Reichart, MDiv
Today's Christian Doctor - Winter 2016

Every year year, thousand of physicians, dentists, nurse practitioners, physician assistants, nurses and other volunteers give up their precious time and money to serve the underserved in healthcare. Why would they become involved when they know there will be no monetary benefit and, frankly, many of those served are “unhygienic” and unappreciative of their efforts?

One of the motivations to give up the sanitized offices of suburbia and help those less fortunate might be summed up in the words of one of the preeminent philosophers of the 21st century—Stan Lee, the creator of Spiderman and countless other comic book characters. Spiderman (or Peter Parker) heard it succinctly from his Uncle Ben: “With great power comes great responsibility.” We feel so overwhelmingly blessed we want and need to bless others.

Another reason for those who attempt to follow Christ is described in Matthew 25:35-40. To paraphrase those verses, when we serve those who are sick or hungry or alone, we are actually serving our Savior.

“…I was sick and you looked after me…” (Matthew 25:36, NIV 2011).

As we seek to follow these commands from Matthew and serve our Savior, the Atlanta chapter of CMDA participates in multiple domestic service projects in our community. We have been blessed to have access to a mobile medical clinic that allows us to partner with several homeless ministries in the city. Safehouse Outreach and the Lazarus Project are just some of the ministries we partner with to serve the homeless community in downtown Atlanta. And because of Georgia’s sovereign immunity laws, we can now offer healthcare to the needy in our state without concern of untoward legal ramifications. In order to take advantage of the law, any healthcare professional interested in volunteering only needs to submit their name and license number to the Georgia Volunteer Health Care Program, and then they can volunteer without the fear or concern of any legal reprisals. This one state-run program alone has opened up a floodgate of volunteers within the healthcare community.

In addition to outreach to the homeless, we also have a bi-monthly healthcare outreach to the suburb of Clarkston. Time Magazine called Clarkston “the most culturally diverse square mile in the U.S.” Clarkston has served as a resettlement area for refugees for more than 20 years. From 1996 to 2001, more than 19,000 refugees were resettled in Georgia, and many of those refugees were resettled in Clarkston. The community has become home to people groups from every major world religion and includes both individuals and families. The refugees, although coming from everywhere in the world, primarily arrive from countries within sub-Saharan Africa, the Middle East and Southeast Asia. These are people who fled their own countries for a variety of reasons, including war, persecution and others, and now they find themselves facing the challenges of navigating a new culture in America. According to some estimates, half of Clarkston’s population is from outside the United States. Matthew 28:19 says, “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations…” (NIV 2011). Well, all nations—practically all of our world—is literally on our doorstep right here in the suburbs of Atlanta. Lucky for us, we don’t have to travel too far to reach our world with the love of Christ.

It is an amazing privilege to serve our Lord and minister to the world in our own backyard. Since beginning our work within the Clarkston refugees, we’ve been able to see more than 600 patients representing 18 different countries. They come to our country with nothing but the clothes they are wearing, fearing for their family’s lives after serving our troops in the Middle East. Others come to escape abject poverty and hopelessness in Southeast Asia. They came from Africa where they fled violence and civil war. One of our patients, Francis, watched as guerrillas slaughtered his brother and father in the Congo Republic. He was resettled in Clarkston, along with thousand of other countess souls, where he found care for his hypertension and a new faith in Christ. One of the medical students who served in the clinic put it this way, “If we don’t go out to minister to the world, I guess God will bring the world to us.”

“Here in Atlanta, the CMDA community has been afforded so many wonderful opportunities to enter peoples’ lives and minister to them through healthcare. We have cared for the downtrodden, those cast aside by society and those who have endured unthinkable hardship. If Jesus were here in the flesh today, I believe these are precisely the ones whose company He would seek. They each have a face, a name, a personality, a story and inestimable value that the world often overlooks. I wish I could convey to each one how precious they are to the Lord! It begins with showing them compassion, respect and caring for them as a whole person. There are some patients that move and break my heart so that I can never forget them. While the world dismissively labels them as ‘homeless’ or ‘stripper,’ I have come to know them by their names and recognize that they are far more than that. They are broken people who still reflect the image of their Creator. I pray we may continue to learn to see people as Christ sees them and strive to see them healed.”
—Natalie Ali, NP

In addition to being able to serve as the hands and feet of Christ to the refugee community and others through the care and compassion of healthcare, the impact on the local ministry here in Atlanta has been unexpected.

Because our serving opportunities usually require about 22 volunteers, which includes physicians, students, intake specialists, a pharmacist and non-medical volunteers, these local service opportunities have produced and made a positive impact on our local ministry. Through these opportunities, we are seeing people’s hearts broken over the lost. Several volunteers have taken the next step and have decided to go beyond the boundaries of the city and serve on an international healthcare mission trip. These medical service opportunities have also created community throughout our local ministry and have shaped mentoring opportunities as healthcare professionals connect with students. At their core, these opportunities have been life changing and transforming.

For instance, through a partnership with a homeless outreach ministry called the Lazarus Project, we recently provided needed medical care to the homeless. We were only a small part of a host of volunteers who provided haircuts and foot massages, as well assisting with job placements. It was particularly exciting that we had a variety of healthcare students from area universities helping and getting to see what it means to serve through healthcare.

Tiffany, one of the third year medical students who previously rotated through a local practice office for training, came with us on one trip to the Lazarus Project. She had never been exposed to anything beyond the typical squeaky-clean office, but she truly had a heart to serve. She brought her first patient back to the tent and asked the unkempt, bearded gentleman a variety of medical questions as she had been trained to do. He came to the clinic for the free food and decided to investiage our little clinic. He previously was a construction foreman in Chicago but lost his job eight years ago when building slowed down. He came to Atlanta for work, but unemployment and alcohol landed him in the streets. Tiffany listened to his story about losing his job, living on the streets and being rejected by his family. I think she expected to simply treat his diabetes, but she ended up crying with him, holding his grimy hands and praying with him. She will never treat a patient the same again.

That’s what outreach is all about. That’s why getting engaged in your local community is so important. When we use our great power with responsibility, we all are even more blessed by our Savior.

So how can you get engaged with your local community through healthcare? It’s a safe assumption that nearly every community in our country has varied opportunities available for you and your local CMDA chapter to start helping the underserved. It’s simply a matter of finding open doors and actively seeking to follow God’s call to serve the sick, the hungry, the weak and the needy.

But that’s easier said than done, isn’t it? Getting started on a project like this can be daunting, quite frankly. And it’s definitely much simpler and far less intimidating to sit back and wait for an opportunity to land in your lap, but God’s call to us in Matthew 25 didn’t mention anything about waiting for the needs to come to us or be handed to us on a silver platter. We need to be actively searching for ways we can use our healthcare skills to make a difference in our communities. The needs are out there, and we have the responsibility and the power to do something about it.

"As academic coordinator of the Mercer University Physician Assistant program, I have witnessed hundreds of energetic healthcare students passing over the threshold into a new adventure. Most of the students possess a deep desire to serve the least among us, and they come with proof of their passion documented in their application to school. Several of our faculty also step out and live what we believe in front of our students. As we do this, our lives are impacted and shift toward a ‘less of me and more of Him’ attitude. While volunteering with my students at the Clarkston refugee clinic, a particular moment stands out. My second year student was ready to present a patient to me, but she had a puzzled, pensive look on her face. She related the history and physical of a 43-year-old male with right shoulder pain. The patient was from Myanmar, but he had been in the U.S. for eight years and had a small family. He was doing manual labor and was noticing increasing trouble with his shoulder. He said that ibuprofen and swimming made it feel better, but lifting was starting to hurt. I reassured the student that she had gathered the appropriate information, but I would see what I could find out. As I talked with him through his 12-year-old daughter as interpreter, I kept wondering what he had done to that shoulder in the past. So I simply looked him in the eye to ask, ‘What happened to your shoulder to make it hurt like this at such a young age?’ His daughter goaded him, and he finally mentioned the time when he was jailed for five years and tortured. He had been a university student studying zoology in Myanmar when he was rounded up by the military and jailed. He was beaten regularly and forced to spend most days hanging with his wrists shackled over his head while kneeling on gravel. I looked at my student and let her know this was the pertinent history we missed. We cared differently after that, and we loved a little deeper. My student and I still recount that patient encounter and how things shifted for both of us that day.”
—Jill Mattingly, PA-C

To help you get started, here are some helpful tips we learned through our efforts to become more actively engaged in serving the homeless, the refugees and the underserved in the Atlanta area.

Research your options.

Check to see what laws and programs are in your state to provide sovereign immunity and protection for healthcare professionals. The Georgia Volunteer Health Care Program began in 2005 with the passage of Georgia House Bill 166, which authorized the state of Georgia to offer sovereign immunity protection to uncompensated, licensed healthcare professionals while they provide donated care to eligible patients. Not every state offers this protection, so it’s important to know what’s available in your state. Similar programs are offered in Florida, South Carolina and Texas.

Don’t do it alone.

Too often we will find opportunities to serve and then just simply plug away by investing our volunteer hours all by ourselves. Serve differently. Take, go and bring someone with you as you serve. Bring family members, especially if the healthcare outreach is coupled with other types of mercy ministry. Invite other healthcare colleagues to serve with you. Or reach out to a medical student and encourage them to come and shadow you. You can create meaningful and significant opportunities to build relationships all while having fun serving when you serve with someone else.

Work together.

Find organizations already serving in your area and double your efforts by working together. The best types of organizations in which you’ll have the opportunity to integrate your faith with patient care will almost certainly be faith-based organizations and ministries. By doing some research, talking to colleagues or asking the leaders in your church, you may easily discover ministries already helping and providing healthcare for underserved communities in your area.

Don’t do nothing just because you can’t do it all.

So many organizations and clinics to medically underserved communities are simply happy if you are willing to engage and volunteer at whatever level you can. Many of these groups are very flexible to work with your schedule and availability. Don’t allow the enormity of the need cause paralysis of inaction.

Be open to other ways of serving.

In addition to going and serving within your community, another option that may be available to you is to open your practice to take on and receive referrals. Many healthcare outreaches and clinics are in need of specialists who are willing and able to take on a certain amount of referrals of patients and you can choose to negotiate with the organization the amount of patients you would be willing to receive. You can serve without even leaving your office.

“I began volunteering at the Clarkston clinics as a pre-medical student with my home church. Now, as a second year osteopathic medical student at GA-PCOM, I volunteer monthly with my classmates through CMDA Atlanta. Admittedly, my initial interest in volunteering was somewhat selfishly motivated. An eager pre-med, I hoped to become a better candidate for medical school through my service, but ultimately my experiences in Clarkston have made me better in more ways than I ever imagined. Over the years, I’ve found the refugees of Clarkston to be warm, caring people who are thankful beyond measure for our interest in them. Personally, as mother to a 16-month-old son, I empathize deeply with the refugee mothers who visit our clinic. They have the same hopes and dreams for their children as I have for my son: safety, security, love, faith and opportunity. But the refugee community is full of families who have fled or been forced from their homes, people who have experienced extreme religious and physical persecution. Some of the patients we see are understandably timid and skeptical of us, but all are grateful and relieved to have their medical needs met. Through continued service, it is my hope our team will become a fixture in the community so we might foster a cross-cultural relationship of trust and understanding. As it says in James, ‘What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if someone claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save them? Suppose a brother or a sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, “Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,” but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead’ (James 2:14-17, NIV 2011).”
—Lauren McKune

Serving others is not a new concept for Christians. Preachers, theologians and great writers have been advocating the great need to serve others for hundreds of years. 18th century theologian John Wesley once said, “One of the principal rules of religion is to lose no occasion of serving God. And, since he is invisible to our eyes, we are to serve him in our neighbor; which he receives as if done to himself in person, standing visibly before us.”

Isaac Watts, who wrote more than 750 hymns in his lifetime, said, “In matters of equity between man and man, our Savior has taught us to put my neighbor in place of myself, and myself in place of my neighbor.”

Scottish evangelist and biologist Henry Drummond wrote, “I shall pass through this world but once. Any good thing therefore that I can do, or any kindness that I can show to any human being, let me do it now. Let me not defer it or neglect it, for I shall not pass this way again.”

If you aren’t engaged in serving others in your community, don’t defer any longer. Follow the words of these wise men—and the advice of Uncle Ben to Peter Parker—and get started today.

“‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me’” (Matthew 25:40, NIV 2011).

About the Authors

Scott T. Keller, DO, FAAFP
Bill Reichart, MDiv