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Decade of Healing: Foster School of Medicine’s Student Clinic Serves as a Lifeline in El Paso’s Colonia of Sparks

Updated: Apr 1

Marking its 10th anniversary, the Medical Student Run Clinic in far east El Paso demonstrates the enduring power of community-centric health care and education.



The clock on the wall showed 5:45 p.m., 15 minutes to opening of the Medical Student Run Clinic in the colonia of Sparks on the eastern edge of El Paso.


In a break room, six medical students, all volunteers from the Texas Tech Health El Paso’s Foster School of Medicine, consume a complimentary meal, a token of appreciation for volunteering that evening.


In the front office, the clinic’s student-led management team reviews the evening’s agenda. Second-year medical students Katherine Asmis and Anika Patel discuss team assignments, while Sergio Saucedo hurries with a bucket to catch water leaking from the ceiling, a reminder of the building's ongoing need for repairs.





In the waiting room with its one blue wall, sits the evening’s first patient, Eloisa, who is anything but blue. She’s glad to be here.


Eloisa (she requested her last name be withheld) first visited the Sparks Clinic in 2019, shortly after being diagnosed with a medical disorder requiring surgery.


“I was first diagnosed in 2017,” recalled Eloisa. “Nobody wanted to treat me. I didn’t have insurance or an income. But when I came to this clinic, they helped me.”


The students provided Eloisa with more than just care. They took on her case and helped her navigate the health care system, learning its ins and outs. They found her a surgeon, located financial assistance, and provided follow-up care.


Eloisa praised the students for their compassionate care and taking the time to work with her. “This year I had my surgery. It was only possible because of their help. They changed my life.”





A Frontier Clinic

Eloisa is typical of the patients who rely on the clinic’s services during each bi-monthly, three-hour session. If it weren’t for the clinic, they would likely forego preventive care, and likely seek medical care when their health issues are in advanced stages.


The clinic’s decade-long operation in Sparks underscores the pressing need for medical services in communities that traditional health care systems often overlook. In Texas alone, 28.9% of Hispanics lack health insurance, compared to 19.4 percent of the nation. Low-income, unincorporated areas like Sparks lack basic infrastructure, such as water and sewage. They can also be health care deserts.


Medical student-run clinics date back to the 1960s’ free clinic movement. Since then, they have evolved into an integral part of medical education. In 2009, the same year the Foster School of Medicine welcomed its inaugural class, a nationwide student-led movement emerged to endorse MSRCs. Students from the nation’s medical schools provided a how-to framework for establishing and operating clinics. This included guidelines for using a medical school’s existing facilities, often made available to students after normal business hours for use as free clinics.


The Foster School of Medicine students instead elected to take their services where they could have a greater impact. Their research led them to the Sparks colonia, where they met with community health care workers known as promotores. The owners of the neighborhood’s small community center agreed to host the clinic. After four years of planning and organizing, the clinic opened in 2013 with the backing of the recently established Texas Tech Health El Paso.


While student-led, the clinic operates under the supervision of licensed physicians, providing a practical environment for students to hone their skills. One benefit unique to the Foster School of Medicine is the ability to converse with patients in Spanish, a crucial part of the curriculum. This requirement reflects the demographic realities of the area, where over 80% of the population is Hispanic, which stands in stark contrast to the mere 7% of Hispanic physicians and surgeons practicing nationwide.


Lasting Impact

The MSRC's impact is measurable not only in terms of health care provision but also in its contribution to the educational growth of future medical professionals. Rather than waiting until their third year for clinical experience, Foster School of Medicine students transition from theoretical learning to real-world application during their first year, gaining insights into the complexities of health care delivery in historically underserved communities.


“After a decade, it's clear that the clinic is much more than a health care provider; it's a vital part of the fabric of the Sparks community,” said Maureen Francis, M.D., MACP, associate dean for medical education and faculty supervisor of the Medical Student Run Clinic. The clinic represents our commitment to embed our students where health care is most needed, nurturing a deeper understanding and connection to the community we serve.”



The clinic has faced challenges, such as its location 15 miles east of the university’s Central El Paso campus. The driving distance sometimes makes it difficult to attract and retain volunteer physicians. Notwithstanding these obstacles, the MSRC has provided over 4,000 free medical sessions since its inception.


The clinic extends its reach beyond its colonia home. Each month, the clinic’s Care Van Mobile Health Unit sets up shop at local businesses and offers a variety of health care services ranging from vaccinations to free high school sports physicals. The use of the Care Van was donated in 2019 by The Caring Foundation of Texas with its major sponsor, Blue Cross Blue Shield of Texas.


Another is the partnership with Desert Imaging to offer comprehensive life-saving breast screening services and mammograms, aimed at battling health disparities that contribute to high cancer mortality rates among Hispanics.


Despite the growth of surrounding neighborhoods and nearby Horizon City, fueled by the opening of a massive Amazon fulfillment center warehouse three years ago, the Sparks colonia has barely changed. That includes the need for basic health care.


The value of the clinic to the community is not lost on Eloisa.


“I'm so pleased with this clinic, all the students, and every single doctor. They do a lot for me and my health,” said Eloisa.


Wiping away her tears, she added, “This clinic gave me a new life.”


 

DONATE TO THE MSRC

The Foster School of Medicine’s Medical Student Run Clinic is open two Tuesdays each month from 6 to 9 p.m. at 106 Peyton Road, in the Spark’s neighborhood of El Paso County.


Much of the clinic’s preventive screening costs and supplies are provided through private donations. For more information on how to support the student-run clinic, visit give2.ttuhscep.edu or contact Craig Holden at 915-215-5943, craig.holden@ttuhsc.edu.


 

YOU CAN HELP

Help transform health care in our community and beyond by making a gift to Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center El Paso. CLICK HERE to learn how to give.

At TTUHSC El Paso, we are committed to growing our own health care heroes and changing the state of health care in our Borderplex. For more information about how you can help, please contact andrea.tawney@ttuhsc.edu or craig.holden@ttuhsc.edu or visit ttuhscep.edu/elpaso/ia/giving/.


 

Original Article: TECH TALK - MAR. 20, 2023

 

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