The Gift of Sight

By Chief Medical Officer James Schultz honor of National Health Center Week

I became a doctor because I wanted to help alleviate the suffering of others.  For 13 years, I worked in a private medical group doing interesting and challenging work. But I became restless. I felt that I ought to be working as a doctor in some remote part of the world helping people who had no care and no options.  I guess I felt I had a calling … a sense of faith-based mission.

I knew nothing of Community Health Centers, though I had some vague notion that they served the poor. When I was asked to consider a position as Neighborhood Healthcare’s Medical Director, it took a while for it to dawn on me that the need I was looking to fill in the world was really right in front of me. 

There is much that I see NOW that I did not see before.

Every day we treat over 1,100 patients at our 11 health centers. They are people like you and me, though often more afraid and lacking in know-how or resources. Because they have waited so long to seek medical or dental care, their needs are usually urgent and more severe.

Statistics tell us that households headed by women have about half the income and less than one third of the wealth than other Americans.  After 16 years at Neighborhood Healthcare, I have seen the faces that speak beyond just facts and figures. There is Celiflor who’s insightful and brave.  We help her think of things her son Rafael (who has cerebral palsy) can DO vs. the things he CAN’T do.  And Tristen whose mother works fulltime but needs help purchasing expensive medicine so that he can feel better. And Maria, whose son stayed in our local center while getting breathing treatments. If we hadn’t been an option for her, he would have been sent to Children’s Hospital, 30 miles way. With no car, a visit to see her sick son would have meant hours by bus – with her other children in tow and language and translation issues to boot. Clearly, Neighborhood Healthcare can make more of a difference because our patients’ needs are greater.

It may be that they come to us when they are desperate but we manage to get them to come back when they aren’t. They return with their children for vaccinations, well baby exams and preventative screenings.  In one year alone, we may prevent at least 100 cervical cancers ----Saving a child’s mother from cancer…or death.

And, though we’re not necessarily always able to prevent a first teenage pregnancy, we’ve proven successful at preventing the second one….with education about parenting, birth control and nutrition.

In fact, everyday, we help patients making inroads beyond their circumstances…Beyond just their immediate medical needs.  Celiflor is proud that she was offered a job with Neighborhood Healthcare as a promotora -- helping overweight children and their parents learn how to cook healthy, low-fat meals. Our older adult program brings our isolated, elderly neighbors to our centers for assistance, socializing, nurturing…shut-ins who would otherwise be invisible to us all.

It didn’t take long for me to see how infinitely grateful our patients are for the immediate medical attention…but also for the smile, the  reassurance, the  doctor who can speak their language , the promise of hope beyond today.

I also see, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that my colleagues are mission-oriented, community minded individuals who offer superior care. It is definitely not income that motivates them. As with me, rather, it is a sense of a calling.

Yet, it would be shortsighted to think that we are only helping the poor.  We are also helping ourselves --- safeguarding against an outbreak of infectious disease ----Sparing the community higher taxes to pay for an increase in hospital emergency services and follow up care, not to mention a negative impact on community health and spirit. Most of all, I see now how we are all connected in the health care system, whether we want to be or not. “The health of the least affects the health of us all.”

Yes, it’s hard to see what’s not right in front of our eyes….No longer do I imagine that I have to travel half way across the world to fulfill my mission as a doctor. The truth is that I only have to walk 6 blocks further than my last job! If I had not come here, I would not see all the interconnectedness.

Where other medical groups stop at the traditional concept of medicine, Neighborhood healthcare provides much-needed dental care to thousands. Our teeth are actually a part of the body! And an important one which can make or break our overall health.

We also have come to see that our minds affect our health most powerfully, and have incorporated behavioral health specialists into all of our offices. They are part of the team and are part of almost everything we do.

I also used to think that working in a Community Health Center meant that I would have to compromise on the quality of care given to my patients, and that I might have colleagues that couldn’t cut it in the ‘real world’. What I now see is world-class quality, proven by hard data and being delivered by world-class medical staff who also has a heart for what we do and for our patients. I could not be more proud to be helping people where I do. Neighborhood Healthcare serves the poor, the desperate, the unexpectedly laid off, the sickest and most complex of our neighbors -- this supports the health of the community, which in turn puts their values into action, by giving generously to Neighborhood Healthcare. Your generosity continues to help us fulfill our mission and benefit all.

--To give to Unfunded Care in honor of Dr. James Schultz and Neighborhood Healthcare’s 650 employees, please go here.