July 8, 2022

M4s fulfill dreams with volunteer trip to Hilton Head clinic

Wayne State University School of Medicine students spent three weeks caring for patients at the Volunteers in Medicine clinic in South Carolina.

Wayne State University School of Medicine medical students Michelle Malik, Erika Palanco, Erin Leestma and Angelina Palacios finally made it to Hilton Head Island, a destination more than two years in the making for the quartet of fourth-years whose trip to volunteer at a free clinic was cancelled by the coronavirus pandemic a day before their scheduled departure.

“Finally getting to Hilton Head Island was a dream. It was so disappointing to find out that the 2020 trip had been cancelled due to COVID literally the day before we were supposed to fly out,” Leestma said. “Thanks to the hard work of Camilo Guzmán, one of the attendees of the 2019 trip, he orchestrated a return to the VIM clinic for us in our fourth year, and we were able to take a full three weeks to really integrate ourselves into the culture of Hilton Head and get a feel for how Dr. John Newman, the VIM CEO, ran the free clinic.”

The quartet finally made it in May, providing care and service as Spanish translators for the physicians and staff at the Volunteers in Medicine Clinic, or VIM, on Hilton Head Island.

“It felt exciting to be able to return and volunteer there and represent the School of Medicine and LMSA. Personally, I was reinvigorated by this trip. It made me remember how truly needed and wanted Spanish-speaking physicians are,” Palacios said. “I had a patient who I was able to report to that her ultrasound showed her lump was a lipoma and she had nothing to worry about. She cried and asked me a couple times to make sure she understood that everything was all right. I can only imagine that without the reassurance in her native tongue she may have gone home still worried that she didn't clearly understand her results.”

The students have some fun while promoting healthy eating.

The Latino Medical Student Association works to improve the health of the Latino and Hispanic patient population through volunteering and cultivating members of the Wayne State University School of Medicine community to become better physicians for Latino and Hispanic populations. The 2022 trip was made possible by support from the WSU School of Medicine’s Medical Alumni Association.

“I think what made this trip so special is that here we are, on the brink of fourth year, with all of the medical skills and knowledge we've acquired in the interim, and have the ability to actually accurately assess and diagnose patients and deliver that care in their native Spanish language,” Leestma said. “Because we were further along in our training and have good foundational knowledge – thanks, Wayne! – I think it allowed us to better absorb clinical reasoning and diagnostic information from the specialists at the clinic.”

The clinic is funded entirely by donations, and remains in operation because of the staff’s volunteer efforts. The students’ translating skills were invaluable in a volunteer-run clinic that serves a predominantly Spanish-speaking population.

“A large portion of the population that the clinic serves are of Hispanic origin and English is a second language for them. The clinic does its best to serve them, but they rely on volunteer language interceptors to help every day,” Palacios said. “As both interpreters and medical students, we were able to build bridges between health care and the patients. We were also in the unique position of being able to answer general medical questions and help patients understand the care they were receiving.”

Hilton Head Island is located near Port Royal Sound, which was a Spanish fort settlement in the 1500s called Santa Elena. As of the 2020 census, the Hispanic population on Hilton Head Island was 13.4%, significantly larger than the Hispanic populations in other resort towns in the southern United States.

Angelina Palacios

“As far as speaking Spanish to patients, I felt like my Spanish skills had been underutilized since coming to medical school and it was so refreshing to be able to practice my two great loves (Spanish and medicine) at the same time. I think this trip really reinforced my desire to work in psychiatry as a bilingual mental health professional,” Leestma said. “Psychiatry and behavioral health was unfortunately one of the lesser developed services for the patients at the clinic. It was especially frustrating for me to see patients in distress and not be able to offer them the timely therapy or appropriate medication they deserve. I think it highlights what we already see around the rest of the country -- a shortage of mental health providers for the growing need of mental health services, now exacerbated by the vulnerability of a population with limited English proficiency and knowledge of how to navigate the health care system. It is my hope and desire to return to the island sometime after my residency to give back to the people who made our time so special at VIM clinic on Hilton Head Island.”

The students worked with physicians across 23 specialties, rotating through internal medicine, orthopedics, nephrology, pediatrics, surgery, family medicine, obstetrics and gynecology, endocrinology, rheumatology and cardiology.

“The specialists were so great to work with. Many of them had lived full clinical careers before retiring and coming to practice at the VIM clinic. So many of them shared their wisdom of patient care, what it was like while they were practicing and how much medicine has changed over the years, which is really something we don't always get the opportunity to be exposed to or appreciate while in medical school,” Leestma said. What I love about primary care is that you get to see and meet all kinds of people with all kinds of stories. I made a point to work with a variety of specialists because I wanted to expose myself to as many styles of clinical practice as possible.”

Subscribe to Today@Wayne

Direct to your inbox 3 times a week