For nursing student Bridget Sweet, volunteering at a free clinic that serves mostly immigrants allows the junior to apply what the Villanova University College of Nursing teaches: nursing as a healing ministry that values every patient.
Sweet embodies the college’s mission as a volunteer at Unity Clinic, a nurse practitioner-run health service in South Philadelphia that provides free care to uninsured patients, most of whom are Indonesian.
The BSN student was introduced to Unity Clinic through a mandatory course she took last year. Sweet was so moved by the experience that she has felt compelled to regularly volunteer at least once a month since October.
“It’s very unfortunate how if you are an undocumented immigrant, or if you don’t have health insurance, your treatment” is less than desirable, Sweet said. Villanova’s College of Nursing, she said, “stresses that we learn about the inherent dignity of human beings.”
Treating with respect
“It doesn’t matter if the person is a millionaire or the person is experiencing homelessness, the person deserves the same quality of care,” Sweet said. “That is something I really try to apply in my own practice.”
Working with mostly Indonesian patients also reinforces the need for cultural awareness and sensitivity, she said.
Villanova’s College of Nursing helped develop and organize the free Unity Clinic, which opened in the summer of 2006. The clinic is part of a service project initiative of the Augustinian Defenders of the Rights of the Poor, which advocates for and collaborates with the patients, according to Elise Pizzi, MSN, RN, CRNP, adjunct assistant professor and clinical director.
In addition to serving as a clinical site for nursing students, Unity Clinic is a practice site for Villanova nurse practitioner faculty and nursing alumni who volunteer there. Community partners include Methodist Hospital, part of Thomas Jefferson University Hospitals, which provides free laboratory services for 10 patients per night, and Quest Diagnostics, which provides a substantially decreased price for Pap smears, according to Pizzi.
Housed in an unused rectory, Unity Clinic offers a wide range of services with a focus on primary care and preventive medicine for individuals who cannot get care for a variety of reasons, “mainly no insurance and a language barrier and prejudicial bias. It’s tough when you don’t speak the language and you look different,” said Karen McKenna, MSN, RN, a clinical assistant professor at Villanova’s College of Nursing.
Making a difference
McKenna, who supervises the Villanova nursing students, said it is not uncommon for students to return after their first encounter with the clinic through a course. “They volunteer because they love it so much the first time they come,” she said.
The clinic is open Tuesday evenings by appointment. Last year, it served approximately 1,100 people.
“Patients see the same clinicians when they come,” McKenna said. “This is not a walk-in clinic. It is a primary care clinic, and their health is managed by the clinicians who are there every month.”
The fixed day and time for the clinic promotes trust and a sense of community, according to Sweet.
“The patients really get to know the nurse practitioners and the volunteer physician,” she said. “I’ve gotten to know some of the translators and developed a relationship with them and the university students.”
Unity Clinic also is a federally designated free clinic. “We got that designation because it covers our liability, which was an issue,” Pizzi said. “It allowed us to get more clinicians to volunteer.”
As immigrants, many of the clinic’s patients are not covered by the Affordable Care Act and rarely have insurance coverage, according to Pizzi, a volunteer since 2008.
“I think I have something to offer patients,” Pizzi said. “I also wanted to volunteer because that is important to me to give service and that’s why I enjoy doing it. Now I am an adjunct faculty at Villanova. I retired from full time, so it’s just a really wonderful way to continue my practice but to do it with people who really need care.”
Robin Farmer is a freelance writer.