My Sister’s Keeper
Her name is Meher. Now, her name is not really Meher but due to HIPAA regulations and my commitment to patient privacy, her name will be Meher for the purpose of this story. Meher is a young woman of color, seemingly in her 20s or 30s, who is a survivor of a sexually abusive marriage and now resides in a women’s shelter in LA County with her two-year-old daughter Sanjana (name also changed for confidentiality). I didn’t know these horrific details of Meher’s life when we first met this morning while I was volunteering at Care Harbor, a three-day clinic that offers a variety of health services free of charge to all who are able to come. Like many others, she arrived at the clinic today eager to be seen by health professionals and receive the necessary care that has been deprived of her for far too long. As I was working at the entrance, I greeted Meher with a smile and directed her to a registration desk as soon as one became available. Her tall, thin frame and pleasant demeanor - despite managing her teary-eyed toddler and lugging around a heavy backpack - stuck with me but the memory was fleeting. There wasn’t time to dwell on any single person or family. No time for small talk - the clinic was packed. Over the course of five hours, hundreds (maybe thousands) of people filtered into the clinic, passing through registration, glucose screening, the weighing station, triage and then on to the second floor to receive primary care consultations, dental check-ups, vision assessments, mental health counseling, women’s health screenings, and educational information on community health services offered around LA County. Staffed by licensed health professionals and student volunteers, this clinic was the closest thing to comprehensive healthcare that probably many - if not all - of the patients at Care Harbor had encountered in a long time, if not ever. Without health insurance or legal immigration status in this country, it is nearly impossible to receive regular medical care outside of an emergency situation. The majority of the people seeking healthcare at the clinic today were people of color. And since there seems to be a perpetual correlation between a lack of health insurance, poor health outcomes, and people of color, this is a huge concern for our community, for our families, for us
After spending the morning at registration, I made my way upstairs to have lunch, check out the different health stations, and learn more about local government-funded programs available for diverse populations in LA. Just when I thought my volunteering hours were coming to an end, the volunteer coordinator, Jim, pulled me aside and asked for my help with a certain patient. He explained the woman’s situation/medical history to me very briefly while walking and emphasized that she might need extra support navigating the clinic. “Just stick with her,” he said, “and make sure she goes by ‘psych’.” Although I was nearly ready to go, I agreed and was glad to help. As we approached the area where she was sitting, I immediately recognized the woman and her adorable little girl - the tears had finally dried. I officially introduced myself to Meher and sat down with her as we waited. And waited. And waited. The VISION unit of the clinic had 8 stations alone. It took a while. And while Meher was being assessed by doctors and medical students, I tried to entertain Sanjana and keep her from fiddling with medical equipment or wandering astray. Once Meher received a prescription for free lenses, we made our way to the DENTAL department for Sanjana’s check-up. The visit was rather quick, as two-year-olds tend to not like it when strangers wearing gloves and face masks try to poke popsicle sticks (without the popsicle) in their mouths. After about 5 minutes, we accepted the defeat and proceeded to the last stop of the day: mental health counseling. I waited outside the makeshift patient room with Meher’s backpack and Sanjana’s new toys: a balloon made out of an inflated medical glove and a stress ball in the shape of a brain. The session only lasted about 10 minutes, much shorter than I would’ve desired for Meher. There was so much to discuss, I thought. So much pain, so much hurt, buried deep inside, leaving scars so prevalent but at time the same time, invisible.
After the mental health visit, we made our way towards the patient check-out desk, where Meher was given information on other free clinics around LA County, and then downstairs to exit the building. As I handed over the backpack and we said our goodbyes, Meher graciously thanked me for everything and I wished her all the best. What I did for Meher was not heroic or monumental. There were no grand gestures. I was simply there. Present. By her side to let her know that she didn’t have to be here alone. To support her when the patriarchal systems that pervade society have failed and persecuted her. As human beings filled with compassion and kindness in our hearts, now more than ever under this new Administration, we must band together and build each other up. And as People of Color, despite the odds, despite the cards being stacked against us time and time again, we must lift each other up, organize, take care of ourselves, prioritize our health, and keep fighting to tear down systems that to continue to privilege the privileged and oppress the historically disenfranchised. Because Meher could be your mother, your sister, your aunt, or your friend. Because Meher could be you.
Kristina M. Parkins, MPH
An Atlanta native, French speaker, and citizen of the world, Kristina brings a unique dynamism and passion to all that she does. Her interest in improving health outcomes among underserved populations combined with her diverse work experiences in international development and public health programs demonstrate her capacity to create sustainable change at a local, national, and global level.
Social media: @tinamarinashawdy - Instagram; Linkedin under Kristina Parkins