IAP Health Reflection: Veronica

At MIT, it is easy to forget how hard life can be for some individuals. As much as we don’t like to admit it as students, we do live in a bubble. The environment here is as accepting as can be, with an office of support always one hallway away. Students are made up of every culture from around the world, with passions and a willingness to share and assist each other. Topics like food scarcity and mental health are discussed regularly on campus to reduce the stigma around them. The administration works very hard to ensure that students are supported and assisted. Almost none of this is the case once you step off-campus and into the city. There, no one knows who you are, and not everyone is willing to help you out when you need it. I saw so much more of the Boston communities this IAP through a program with the PKG Center.

My IAP was spent in low-income areas of Boston, offering free health screenings and assistance to individuals that struggle with the current healthcare system. The Family Van is a mobile health clinic sponsored by Harvard Medical School that offers free testing in blood pressure, blood sugar, cholesterol levels, HIV/STI, and more. Their mission is to reduce urgent hospital visits, inform members of the community on the value of being healthy, and lower health-care inequity by increasing health monitoring. Products such as diapers, baby formula, blankets, toothbrushes, toothpaste, and condoms are distributed to clients to promote healthy and safe living. Some clients that visit the van are regulars that stop by every week the van is out; others are first timers that had a strong enough curiosity about the services to step inside. In either case, the attitude towards a client is the same: welcoming and friendly.  

What this experience on the Family Van did to me was force me to break out of the MIT bubble every week. It forced me to talk to people, not about school or thought experiments, but about acclimating to a country whose language is different than their own, or about the danger they felt in an apartment complex located in a high-crime part of the neighborhood. Volunteering was about recognizing my privilege and using it to open a world of resources for an individual who was not as lucky as me. An individual who I was taught to never view as anything less than a capable, important human being. I had never been taught to hold the client to as high of a level of respect until now. They are people who I want to get to know, so that I can help them if they need it, or just comfort if they simply want company. 

The visits on The Family Van are different than a doctor’s visit. Our conversations are guided by a questionnaire we need to fill out but are never limited by it. The conversations we want to have go beyond healthcare; they are the ones that give more detail into a person’s life, to have a better idea of how to support them. The goal with every visit isn’t to get their vitals and move on; it’s ensuring they are living in their best possible circumstances. The most successful visits are the ones when the client steps off the van having learned something about how to live their life in a healthier way. It is feeling good about their health and understanding the value behind getting exercise, eating healthy, and carrying a positive attitude.

The experience opened my eyes to many difficulties I never fully thought about. I became more sensitive to the struggles of immigrants. I had multiple clients express their stress about moving to a new country and receiving care in a language they were not familiar with. Some came to the country alone and did not have family members to go home to. They felt intimidated to go to larger neighborhood health centers and were worried about their lack of insurance coverage. As a healthcare provider that is only comfortable with English, I felt like I couldn’t assist to my greatest potential. It made me realize how important it is for a client to understand what is happening with their health in the language they know. The amount of challenges that can be presented in this vulnerable population is quite frustrating and has made me understand their experience more. As much as I want to assist, the barriers to proper healthcare can be quite high in these minority communities, but it makes The Family Van all the more valuable.

During one of our weekly reflection dinners with the PKG Center, a comment was made about the artery that is the 1 Bus down Massachusetts Avenue. The comment went on to discuss how nestled within these prestigious universities are vulnerable populations. This dissonance between the attitudes of the people that ride the bus is something I witnessed first-hand on my ride to The Family Van every day I visited. I would mount the bus at MIT (near the start of its route) and take it down to Dudley Station (the last stop) where I would transfer to another bus. My commute was typically an hour long, and within this time frame was a constant shift of classes and ethnicities riding alongside me. The community in which I mount the bus has a completely different atmosphere than when I get off the bus. Drugs, poverty, and homelessness are not uncommon in Dudley. It is so surprising that no matter what walk of life a person is from, they depend on this central transportation vehicle that sees so much of Boston daily. Even this has impacted me during my time at The Family Van, as I see so many people that may be misunderstood and can benefit from some sort of help. The Family Van wants its volunteers to think of and know of a range of services that could fit any one of those people that step into the 1 Bus. It is knowing that every person’s situation is different but can be connected to a resource that will help them live an easier life.

This essentially was what my project consisted of – scanning and mapping out an area to make it easier for someone living in it to find services. The Family Van has a significant community contribution in this way. The van is benefitting not only the patient but the resource itself by promoting programs that are meant to reach vulnerable parts of the population. The advocacy that The Family Van participates in just by existing can be exponential. It is a service that truly impacts the way a community can go through growth.

There is a wealth of positive experiences I gained from participating in this program. Notable moments include when a gentleman stepped onto the van and told us excitedly, “I’ve never been here before, but I thought I’d step inside!” Only to stay on the van for an hour conversing with the volunteers and staff, bringing so much positivity to his health and the steps he was taking to ensure its progression. He already knew the meaning behind the numbers of his readings, and it exceeded my expectations of a client. He took ownership of his health and it is attitudes like his that makes working on the van more fulfilling. Another moment was with an older woman who I helped in the back room. She had visited the van a few months prior but hadn’t been in a while. I got to know her interests, family, and personal challenges. Something that struck me in the conversation was when she told me that she went to yoga every day to stay healthy and then she asked me what I did. The fact that she wanted to know what I did in my free time highlights how different the atmosphere can be on the van than your average clinical setting. Our talks are two-way conversations that can lead to interactions much more enjoyable than you would find in your typical screening. Talking with clients is an opportunity I didn’t expect to enjoy as much as I did. It has made me very appreciative of The Family Van for letting me help and for giving me their time and effort to teach me.

All in all, this chance I had to look at the communities in Boston in depth is something I will cherish while I go on to pursue my studies. Health care is complicated and difficult, but knowing this is important, if I am planning to contribute to it. The Family Van immersed me into a clinical setting and challenged me to step out of my comfort zone to serve people that are very different than I am. This experience will change the way I approach solutions in the future because I will have a better idea of who I am trying to help – not just because I learned how to take their vitals, but because I got to know them. I will forever appreciate the work the van is doing.

Tags: IAP Health 2020

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