Bellarmine students provide health care for immigrants

Bellarmine University nursing student Cassandra Novajovsky, right, checked the blood pressure of Yolanda Moore during a health promotion event at St. Rita Church in late September. It was one of several such events also planned for this month and next to benefit immigrants who may not have regular access to health care. Moore works in Hispanic ministry at St. Rita Church and had the screening during a slow period at the event. (Record Photo by Marnie McAllister)

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Immigrants and other people who struggle to receive health care can go to St. Rita Church, 8709 Preston Highway, on two upcoming Wednesdays where they will receive free blood sugar and blood pressure screenings. Bellarmine University’s senior nursing students will provide the screenings Oct. 31 and Nov. 7.

The nursing school at Bellarmine has offered these Wellness Wednesdays each fall at St. Rita for the last three years. It’s a way for students to gain practical experience, school officials said. And it satisfies a need that Sister of Charity of Nazareth Isa Garcia sees as a major problem in the immigrant community.

“Many don’t have insurance, therefore the doctor’s visit is expensive along with the medication. And that’s if they can find a place to go,” said Sister Garcia, the Hispanic pastoral associate at St. Rita. She noted that some physicians won’t accept immigrants who lack insurance and others want payment up front.

“In order to avoid going to the doctor, a lot of families use home remedies,” she said. “When they finally do go to the doctor, they are very sick.”

The language barrier can pose problems, too, she noted. For those still learning English, it can be difficult to schedule an appointment, communicate symptoms and navigate the health care system.

As a result, “Some people wait a whole year to see us,” instead of seeking care elsewhere, said Dr. Elizabeth Fitzgerald, a Bellarmine University professor who coordinates the clinics. “Sometimes our little health promotion event is the only help these people are getting. But some come back and show progress. It’s very rewarding. I wish we could get more people to come.”

During the first year she took students to St. Rita, 25 patients visited the clinic. The second year, they saw 52 patients. The third year they had 72. Each fall, the clinics are offered on several Wednesdays.
This year’s offerings began in September.

In addition to screenings, the students also talk to visitors about eating healthfully to avoid diabetes and other problems. They discuss dental health and can talk to patients about stress and depression.

The students also try to advocate for those who need additional care. They call the local health department and other clinics that offer free care to try to make appointments.

“We’ve been lucky we’ve been able to help people,” said Fitzgerald. “But sometimes it’s a long wait — up to 12 weeks — for an appointment.”

One woman they helped last year came in feeling sick and seemed to have heart trouble, Fitzgerald noted. It turned out that four of her children had died in the previous year.

“No one had listened to her. Of course she had heart trouble. Her heart was broken,” Fitzgerald said, noting that the patient needed care for her heart, as well as counseling.

A compassionate ear is difficult for immigrants to find, Fitzgerald noted. That’s one reason she organizes the Wellness Wednesdays at St. Rita. She wants her students to understand the challenges faced by patients who are poor and vulnerable. And she hopes they learn to be compassionate.

One of her former students understood this lesson and uses it in her career.

Jackie Toth, who graduated from the nursing program in May, studied Spanish at Bellarmine, too, so she could communicate more effectively — and connect more closely — with her patients in a local emergency room.

“I enjoy being able to connect to my patients,” she said during one of the Wellness Wednesdays held in September at St. Rita. She took the day off work to help out. “For me, to be a direct line of connection and help them get the assistance they need, that’s where I get my satisfaction out of all the studying it took to get here.”

“Compassion is the role of every nurse,” she added. “Since I’m a caregiver at the hospital for these patients, you see the struggle, you see how difficult it is. And it’s not just because they’re Hispanic (that access to health care is difficult), it’s any population that doesn’t have insurance, cannot pay for medical care.”

Fitzgerald said she is always looking for medical professionals to help expand their offerings.

“We need more dentists and professionals from other areas. Dental care is a real problem,” she said.

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