IAP Health Reflection: Melody

Becoming Part of the Family on the Family Van

My first day as a Family Van volunteer might have been abnormal, but it ended up being one of the most informative experiences of the month. With the van out of commission due to frigid weather, we set up our health screening equipment at one of our contingency sites and waited, hoping our clients would receive our update and find their way to the new site. However, after an hour of quiet, it became clear that today would be a slow day. So Joanne loaded up a bag with blood pressure cuffs and glucometer bags and beckoned me to join her on an outreach trip.

As we headed off into the streets of Dorchester, I felt apprehensive about approaching strangers and offering health screenings, especially when I felt unable to bridge the gap in language and culture between myself and the community. How was I supposed to talk and behave without appearing like a total outsider and alienating my patients? 

Joanne, fluent in Spanish, stepped into one of the many barbershops lining Stoughton Street and began asking the waiting patrons if they wanted a blood pressure or blood sugar checkup. Unsteady but eager, I fell back on my clinical skills and started taking readings. Using what little Spanish vocabulary I had left from high school, I was able to ask simple questions and understand patients’ responses, and I was completely surprised at how responsive and cooperative these strangers were. What became evident from our outreach trip was that I didn’t need to have the exact same background as my patients in order to serve them. Although more knowledge about their languages and cultures would have been helpful, what mattered most was that I kept a genuine intent to understand my patients’ health and to help them improve it. I just needed to provide a listening ear and the tools to help patients help themselves. 

One of the gentlemen in the barbershop had a dangerously high blood pressure reading. As we told him the number, he proclaimed that he thought he had been keeping it under control. Joanne and I sat with him for the next half hour, talking about his condition and how he was managing it. We talked through a lot of points, including diet, exercise, stress, and medications. We urged him to look into the matter further and to come back on the van the next week. 

I was surprised to learn two weeks later that the gentleman had indeed followed up with the van. On his follow up visit, his pressure had returned to normal. He thanked us for alerting him to his condition, and explained that he had adjusted his medication routine since our last meeting. I felt immensely grateful that I had been a part of his care and improving his condition. 

Coming from my background on the ambulance and the Urgent Care clinic, the way the Family Van approached patient care was incredibly different from my previous experience. Before, the pressure of emergencies had always forced me to work quickly and curtly. Never before had I been able to regularly follow up with patients, to chat with them about all aspects of their health, and I certainly had never been in a position to help people discover daily lifestyle changes that would improve their overall wellbeing. Over the course of the month, I learned that establishing rapport not only improves the experience of the patient, but also makes the provider’s job more enjoyable and fulfilling. I felt myself looking forward to seeing regulars every week, and I was glad to learn about how they were managing their health conditions. 

Not only was I able to overcome my fear of the language and culture gap, but I was able to find a lot of joy in truly building a relationship with our patients. For that, I end this January feeling immense gratitude to the providers, mentors, and patients on the Family Van. 

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