by Kanako Matsuda

My spring break started on a warm Sunday morning, as my team and I gathered in front of Sadler Center to be picked up. After packing our luggage expertly into the crowded van, we were off on the road for the next hour. When we arrived at Kilmarnock, Virginia, I was eager to finally see the Northern Neck Free Health Clinic for the first time. It is a wonderful place, bright and welcoming, as was our community partner. She gave us a short tour around the clinic, showing us the kitchen where we could make our meals and the upper lounge where we could wind down (and work!). After this tour, much story-telling, and dinner, we hopped back into the van and headed to our next destination: a comfy trailer which we called our home for the week. And so day one ended.

Unfortunately, we couldn’t volunteer at the clinic the next day for the torrential snow which closed the clinic. While we were disappointed, it definitely motivated us that much more to get started on Tuesday. So when we arrived at the clinic that morning, we were ready to get on it. My first volunteer work consisted of documenting very, very old patient charts and putting them aside to be destroyed eventually. I loved this, as I got to chat and bond with my two friends who also documented these charts. We competitively looked for patients whose birth dates were the same as ours, and listened to awesome (and sometimes not so awesome) spotify music.

This was one of the major projects of that week, and eventually the rest of our team joined in this endeavor. We were surrounded by mountains of files. Literally piles upon piles were on the floor, threatening to topple over at any moment. However, we persisted and triumphed and finishing off the last chart was the most cathartic experience.

Apparently, this was more than a year’s worth of work that we accomplished. The clinic can’t afford to convert to an electronic system, and they still use the good old-fashioned paper charts. However, we did bring up how much the burden can be lessened if all the records were on an electronic system for the clinic sees a whopping number of  patients per week. It made me realize that the clinic is so vital to these patients, for whom this was their only access to good health care. This is literally the only place they can go, and be treated with respected and care regardless of where they come from. Being able to help these patients, albeit indirectly, by allowing the clinic to get back on track made me realize our role as volunteers was a crucial one that impacted much more than just the physical work we did.

I had the pleasure of shadowing a nurse practitioner and sitting in on several check-ups. One patient in particular had a myriad of health problems, with a patient chart nearly a foot high. It was with a subdued air that I listened to the nurse practitioner converse with her as the patient explained her many emergency room visits and life story of how she got to this point. What I learned was that half of those health issues could have been avoided by simply leading a healthy lifestyle. Certainly, genetics play into a person’s health, but much of it was due to not knowing how to read nutrition labels, or not knowing that processed foods themselves are unhealthy. The knowledge that we take for granted, that we have been educated on since elementary school, is something they lacked.

Yet the frustrating thing is, across the board, the patients at the clinic are also very poor and can’t possibly afford the healthy lifestyle that doctors recommend. Fast-food is cheap, that’s why it’s eaten. It’s terrible for you, but some of the patients simply can’t afford non-processed foods. And stress was an always-prevalent factor. Lacking money is a stressor most college students can identify with, but I met adults at the clinic without jobs and still needed to support their children. Stress causes health problems, and these health problems lead to money being spent to address these issues. But how can they afford it? The clinic does a wonderful job by providing for the low-income population, but the bigger issue is that this is a cyclic process rooted in an almost unchangeable part of this rural area’s demographic. The lack of education, unhealthy lifestyles, and lack of financial support is the root of all this. As my friends and I had discussions, I felt that we all shared the same thought: what can we do to change this? I believe these discussions helped forge a stronger bond with my friends; we were all passionate about this and shared the same motivations.

This experience opened my eyes to the fundamental causes of health inequality. More importantly, I have learned to appreciate even more than before the role of free health clinics in addressing access to quality healthcare. I want to carry this experience throughout the rest of my time and college, and certainly in the future as I pursue a career. As a junior who still has no idea what she will do after college, this was a meaningful step in what I believe is a worthwhile and fulfilling cause. I hope to explore these issues in greater detail again, whether I’m volunteering or talking to my friends. I will never forget this spring break.