MUSCOY, Calif. ― When you drive up to the Al-Shifa Free Health Clinic, there will only be a few cars outside. But when you walk in, you’ll see a full waiting room. Why? Because many of our clients literally walk in.
Open since 2000, our clinic is on the outskirts of the city of San Bernardino, in a largely Latino area called Muscoy. Nearly a third of all residents live below the poverty line, and many of them do not have cars or access to other transportation. Without a clinic like ours close by, checkups would not happen and chronic conditions like diabetes, obesity and heart disease would be left untreated.
Al-Shifa has an open-door policy to provide care regardless of race, religion or socio-economic status. We serve primarily low-income and uninsured patients. Our website explains that “shifa” is the Arabic word for cure and that the clinic is based on the teachings of Islam ― compassion for the sick and service to those in need. And we’re not alone ― one survey found that there are at least 10 Muslim health clinics that serve the uninsured or underinsured, including non-Muslim-majority communities, throughout the U.S.
“Al-Shifa has deepened my commitment to providing medical care for everyone, regardless of ability to pay.”
About 60 percent of Al-Shifa clients speak only Spanish, so most of the medical staff is bilingual and can translate for doctors who don’t speak Spanish. The staff, as well as the clinic’s volunteer doctors, board members and donors, believe everyone has a right to health care and the right to live a healthy life. It’s very important that there is no communication gap between the physician and the patient.
On a recent morning, a reporter visiting from Zocalo Public Square interviewed a Spanish-speaking gentleman who works as a carpenter and had come in for his regular checkup. He told the reporter that he’s been coming here for a couple of years for help managing his diabetes, that he likes the Al-Shifa doctors and that he can walk to the clinic from home.
I am the clinic manager as well as an aspiring primary care physician. I got my medical degree in Pakistan, and I’m now in the process of obtaining a residency program. I’ve lived in Riverside for eight years, and several years ago, I started at the clinic as a volunteer. I was looking for a place where I could get a feel for how medical care works in the U.S. I heard about this clinic from my family doctor. I like the way everyone helps one another ― the spirit of service here goes to the heart of what good medicine is about.
Al-Shifa relies on medical care volunteers. For example, Dr. Duc Nguyen, who was the scheduled doctor on the day Zocalo came to visit, is an internist by specialty. He sees patients at Al-Shifa for four hours every Friday, donating his time. He is currently employed at Kaiser and has been there for many years. The clinic relies on people like him to provide a high level of care. The rest of our staff is also made up primarily of volunteers as well as interns from Job Corps, the career technical training program administered by the U.S. Department of Labor.
Our annual budget is tiny ― just $240,000. Most of our funding comes through private donors, with additional support from Kaiser Permanente and the city of San Bernardino. Everything here was donated: the parking lot, the building, the staff and medical equipment. Our 5,000-square-foot clinic houses 19 exam rooms, but despite its size, it is a modular building that manages to accommodate our patients’ needs. Al-Shifa Clinic would certainly benefit from a permanent facility, but funding is limited and our goal for now is to make the most of what we have.
The clinic has between 30 to 45 doctors volunteering each month and sees about 200 patients a month on the medical side. We try to offer everything under one roof. We offer both primary and specialty care, including cardiology, pulmonology, neurology, physical medicine, nephrology, orthopedic surgery, phlebotomy and rheumatology. The clinic also offers gynecology services, free mammograms and pediatric care, as well as a low-cost dental clinic.
“The spirit of service here goes to the heart of what good medicine is about.”
In addition, the clinic provides preventive care and wellness education, including support to help quit smoking and to help deal with diabetes and weight management. We offer EKGs, echocardiograms and cardiac stress testing ― free of charge, as well as a program on how to maintain a healthy diet and keep up a regular exercise regimen. Since many of our clients have not had regular access to health care in the past, by the time they come to us, their health has deteriorated, and they have developed other complications. We do all we can to help but we are also working on prevention.
Working at Al-Shifa has taught me how to connect with people and how to handle challenging tasks. Al-Shifa has deepened my commitment to providing medical care for everyone, regardless of ability to pay. No one should be denied this precious service, and I am honored to serve this community.
This essay is part of a Zocalo Public Square inquiry on the health of neighborhoods, produced in conjunction with the California Wellness Foundation’s Advancing Wellness Poll.