IN TOWN

Equal access

Medical students operate clinic to help those who have 'fallen between the cracks'


Pre-med student Brad Swinson checks a patient's blood pressure at the Equal Access Clinic.

SPECIAL TO THE SUN
Published: Thursday, April 1, 2004 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, March 31, 2004 at 10:13 p.m.
When Wayne Johnson walked into a downtown Gainesville restaurant and asked for a cup of water, "no" was not the answer he wanted to hear.
He flew into a fury of shouting and swearing until the woman standing behind the counter threatened to call the police. He then turned and stormed out the door.
"Damn, I lost it again," Johnson said to himself, still thirsty.
Scenes like this one are common for Johnson, 51, who suffers from depression. Without medication, Johnson lashes out at what he calls "the simplest little things."
But for Johnson, who is unemployed, antidepressant medication that costs $100 or more a month was out of reach.
Then he discovered the Equal Access Clinic.
University of Florida College of Medicine students operate the free clinic under the supervision of a UF faculty physician. The clinic operates from 6 to 9 p.m. every Thursday at the Family Practice Medical Group, 625 SW 4th Ave.
This Saturday, the clinic will hold its largest fund-raiser - a 5K run expected to draw more than 250 runners. The goal is to raise $8,800, about 35 percent of the clinic's operating funds.
"The clinic fills a need by providing health care for members of our community who would not receive it otherwise," said Karen Bodnar, first-year medical student and a coordinator at the clinic. "One of every six people in Alachua County doesn't have health insurance."
Many of the clinic's patients "slipped through the cracks," Bodnar said. They cannot afford health insurance, but they are not eligible for government assistance programs such as Medicaid or Medicare.
The clinic provides full primary medical care, including blood pressure and blood sugar monitoring, pregnancy tests and anonymous HIV testing and counseling, to approximately 1,000 patients each year. Depending on the patient's needs, prescriptions for medication prescribed at the clinic are filled free of charge.
On the first three Thursdays of the month, a different medical specialist is available at the clinic for specific needs.
An obstetrician/gynecologist is available on the first Thursday, a pediatrician is available on the second Thursday and a psychiatrist is available on the third Thursday.
A limit on patients On this particular Thursday, it is psychiatric night.
Johnson is one of about 20 people lining the ramp leading to the entrance of the Equal Access Clinic. He leans on the handrail behind him, holding his scooter helmet in one hand while he smokes a cigarette with the other. He is trying to relax, but his darting eyes reveal his uneasiness. He ran out of Zoloft, his antidepressant medication, three days ago.
"Just three days without my medication has been terrible," he said, "absolutely terrible."
Johnson said he hopes that after tonight, his life will return to normal - at least until next month when he runs out of the antidepressant again.
"The clinic has made a drastic difference in my daily life," he said. "Without it, I would not get the medication I need, and I would suffer."
The clinic treats patients on a first-come, first-serve basis. Only the first 15 people in line are admitted when the doors open at 6 p.m. Johnson, who is 14th in line, is among those admitted. The others are turned away.
"It's heartbreaking," said Lauren Giglia, co-director of the premedical students at the clinic. "We just don't have the funds to treat everyone who needs medical care."
Students team up Giglia and the other premed students are responsible for admitting and taking the vital signs of the incoming patients.
"I really like the opportunity to have patient contact so early in my medical career," Giglia said. "It is a good feeling to know that you are able to help someone who really needs you."
First and second-year students are teamed with a third- or fourth-year student to interview and examine the patients.
The team then presents its results to the supervising physician who examines the patient to determine a final diagnosis and treatment.
"Every week I come to the clinic it reinforces how important it is to stop and take time to help and care for people who are struggling just to live a healthy life," Bodnar said. "I'm going to want to keep doing this because I know how rewarding it is to fill a genuine need. It's addicting."
The students' compassion does not go unnoticed.
"The doctors and students at the clinic are concerned about people who are down and out," Johnson said. "They really care about people who are hitting rough spots in their lives."
Unfortunately, compassion is not enough to support the clinic, Bodnar said.
Many of the patients treated at the clinic need medication, and even with all the donations the clinic receives from pharmaceutical companies, private donations and UF Student Government, the clinic needs more funds to treat all of its patients.
"Medication is expensive," Bodnar said. "It is hard to keep the medicine cabinet full. We need the support of the community."
For Mark Brahim, 51, of Gainesville the clinic is the only way to keep his family healthy.
"The clinic helps when there is nobody to take care of you," Brahim said. "If there wasn't the clinic, without insurance, you just get sick and die."

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