From volunteer to family physician: A medical student’s journey

Sometimes, it’s difficult to recall that single defining moment or person that sends you on the path you’re meant to take in life. I was fortunate in that I found that experience halfway through my undergraduate career at the University of California, Davis. I had recently lost my grandmother; although I’d wanted to help, all I’d been able to do at the hospital was translate for her. That overwhelming sense of helplessness I felt due to my lack of medical knowledge fueled my desire to help and serve others as a physician. Since I needed to find someplace to start, I applied to become a patient advocate and medical interpreter for Paul Hom Asian Clinic, a student-run clinic that provides free health care to a predominantly uninsured, Cantonese-speaking population.

Staffed entirely by volunteers, we would convene each Saturday to provide primary care services to the Sacramento community. By dispelling the language barrier, I was able to convey each patient’s concerns and health issues to a physician. Being able to build relationships with patients across all ages was, and still is, one of the factors I loved most about family medicine. I knew that truly caring, listening, and paying attention to the little details made a world of a difference in our patients’ care; but as the “Partnering With Patients, Families, and Communities” article suggested, that’s really only the beginning. There is much more work that needs to be done. Volunteering at the clinic strengthened my interest in family medicine, while also opening my eyes to the numerous difficulties that many individuals in our country still face in obtaining the health care that they need.

Paul Hom Asian Clinic provided me with an invaluable community outreach opportunity that allowed me to learn, give back, and most importantly, to help the patients we served. Advocating for our patients’ needs and helping them to help themselves through preventative care and patient education can go a very long way, and by playing the role of the family physician, we were able to accompany them through every step. Aside from tending to their acute and chronic health issues, we also assisted them with obtaining imaging studies and referrals to specialists, as well as with filling out the necessary paperwork for the patient assistance program so that they would be able to afford their medications.  Each year, our clinic would put together a free health fair where we would offer health screenings and vaccines, and give presentations on different health topics pertinent to our clinic’s patient population.

When I moved across the country for graduate school, I (quite unfortunately) couldn’t feasibly continue volunteering regularly at the clinic, so instead, I did my research on the training provided to medical students and family medicine residents in working with individuals with developmental disabilities, and volunteered as an interpreter for the affiliated medical school’s health fair. My experiences volunteering at Paul Hom Asian Clinic are what served as the catalyst that first sparked my interest in family medicine, and I applied to medical school with the intent of going into family medicine so that I could continue working with under-served populations.

It has been 7 1/2 years since I first stepped foot into that clinic. I am now in my last year of medical school, in the midst of audition rotations and residency interviews, and my love for family medicine has not changed in the slightest — I still cannot imagine another specialty that I would enjoy more. I love the variety in each day, the ability to provide continuity of care, as well as the emphasis on preventative care found in family medicine, and I really hope to continue sharing that passion through working with community outreach programs to provide better care to underserved populations in the years to come.

To me, family medicine holds a world of opportunities and possibilities to explore. Within it, there is a niche for everyone, and if we all work together to promote patient education and understanding, and advocate for community health education and outreach, we will truly be able to make a difference in our patients’ lives.

Farrah Fong is a medical student.  This is the first place student winner in the 2015 STFM Blog Competition.   This article originaly appeared in the STFM blog.

Image credit: Shutterstock.com

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