Throughout high school and undergraduate years we were encouraged, and often required, to volunteer and serve our community. Whether it was a project we believed in or just something to put on our resumes, volunteering was a part of every medical student’s life before medical school was even a possibility. As classes grow more hectic and free time becomes scarce throughout the years, service activities are often cut from the schedule. It is not unusual for medical students to leave behind passions: I know concert violinists who no longer play, Division I athletes who no longer compete, and people who traveled all over the world that never leave the library. Any time spent away from academics must be intentional, meaningful and enjoyable for it to be worthwhile. Still, we should not be cavalier about giving up what we enjoy and makes us happy. As we fill out our schedules with commitments — academic and otherwise — we should not be so quick to cut out volunteering.
Clínica Esperanza is a student-run clinic that provides free primary care services to underserved, uninsured Latino adults in Memphis, Tennessee. I had the opportunity to volunteer for Clínica Esperanza for three years, one as an undergraduate and two as a medical student. I began as an interpreter and eventually became a clinic leader. It is an immensely rewarding opportunity to develop my skills and grow as a clinician on a week-by-week basis. I started barely able to take a history without supervision, and have slowly progressed, now able to develop a treatment plan and present to attending physicians. Knowing that each week I would learn something new and useful from the clinic made all the hours in class and reading textbooks worthwhile.
As medical students, we stand in the unique position of possessing skills that are highly in demand, while still having a tremendous amount to learn. From first to fourth year, we can contribute in various and progressively substantial ways. Through volunteering, we learn skills to better care for our patients, but the benefits extend far beyond honing clinical expertise. For many students, the medical school we attend is far from the places we have known and lived previously. Volunteering allows us to become more invested in our cities, to get to know local attendings and other rotating volunteers, and to meet people from communities with whom we may not interact otherwise. Most importantly, the clinic teaches us how indebted we are as medical students to the poor and underserved. As a volunteer student, we see these individuals as our patients, and often our very first patients. We are meeting them well before our prime, and they are helping us to become better physicians for the future. While we practice physical exams and diagnoses, we also learn the importance of continuity of care, the frustration of loss of follow up, and the excitement of seeing improvement in our patients.
Working with students and physicians who value volunteering has made an especially significant impact on me. Medical school is an extremely impressionable and vulnerable period. As much as our universities attempt to surround us with the best and brightest, we will inevitably come across a superior who sees every patient as a paycheck and a poor patient who cannot pay as a leech on their income. Every attending will have an impact, and this viewpoint will stick with us for the very sad fact that it is not entirely wrong. It is true that we work hard and pay grotesque sums of money for our degrees. It is also true that when we enter practice after all of our work and debt and when we don’t get paid for the work we do, it may be difficult not to feel a bit cheated. Nonetheless, if we have the opportunity to volunteer as students, we come to realize that much of our education is dependent on these underserved, underinsured individuals, and perhaps we may become more committed to maintaining our service in the future.
Volunteering with Clínica Esperanza gave me the opportunity to get to know the city I call home, to surround myself with like-minded people, serve my community, and find mentors who share a passion for service. Most importantly, it gave me a chance to rethink the relationship between the poor and the medical community. As schedules fill up and free time becomes sparser, volunteer experiences should still feature proudly upon our calendars. The opportunities to volunteer in a medical setting are substantial in any city. There are always underserved communities, communities that have limited access to health care and organizations looking for any help they can get. Nothing else benefits both our education and our community, and nothing else can have as great an impact on how we think about our patients for the rest of our lives.