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William and Mary students get hands-on experience at free clinic

Contact Reporterwwright@vagazette.com
Clinic on Richmond Road serves uninsured, using students at William and Mary

The Angels of Mercy Clinic is giving students at the College of William and Mary a chance to get hands-on experience prior to heading off to medical school.

Supported by the Williamsburg Health Foundation, the Richmond Road clinic has served uninsured people by appointment for 20 years.

As many as 15 students majoring in the sciences volunteer at the clinic each semester. They work alongside nurses and other medical practitioners to figure out how to address their patients' health issues.

"One of my friends who'd been here before introduced me to the place," said Gabrielle Smith, who will study medicine at the University of Virginia. "She thought I would really excel here. It's a really welcoming environment, and everyone has been pretty supportive."

About 75-100 students, usually upperclassmen, apply to the clinic hoping to volunteer in a given semester, executive director Jeff Black said.

"That's a testament to how popular our program is," he said. "Unfortunately, we can only service a fraction of the kids who are interested."

The clinic does not have the number of patients of James City County's Old Towne Medical Center or Yorktown's Lackey Clinic.

Its distinction, according to volunteer Bill Teale, is how often patients come in.

"Many of these people haven't had medical attention of any kind in years," Teale said. "We probably see people eight or so times their first year just to get them back to good health. Then we try to keep them there."

Angels of Mercy affords Katarina Fleckenstein and other student volunteers some hands-on experience they'd be hard-pressed to find other places prior to medical school.

"They don't teach you this type of stuff in class," she said, referring to the learning curve. She'll study medicine at Virginia Commonwealth University. "It's much different than me sitting in a biology class or something else that really has nothing to do with what I'm particularly interested in."

Many who come into Angels of Mercy have chronic illnesses or health issues that they were previously unaware of, said medical director Jeanne Black.

"More than 29 million people in this country have diabetes," she said. "A lot of these patients we see don't even know they have it."

The clinic uses a Teamlet model, developed at by a physician at the University of California-San Francisco, which assumes that an ordinary 15-minute visit with a doctor isn't enough time to address pressing health issues.

Instead, students work as health coaches, spending more time with patients than a physician. Coaches know the basic skills like disease self-management and meet with physician for guidance.

Part of the students' time is spent as health coaches who help gradually bring patients to better health circumstances.

They also strive to make sure that patients understand just what care they are receiving and why it matters. Black said as many as half of patients in the country don't understand the nuances of their care.

"We do a lot of health maintenance here," said Zack Nimmo, a junior at the college. "One of the things they're big on is us asking how (patients) are doing."

Fleckenstein said she feels especially prepared to head there and excel given what's the she's learned with Angels of Mercy.

"This has been a really great experience," Fleckenstein said. "I've learned quite a bit, and everyone has been pretty supportive. I really think it'll definitely give me a leg in medical school. Most students don't have the chance to get experience like this."

Wright can be reached by phone at 757-345-2343.

Angels of Mercy Medical Clinic

When: Tuesday: 11 a.m. to 6 p.m.

Thursday: 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. (with a Spanish speaking physician)

Where: 7151 Richmond Road, Suite 401

By appointment only, call 565-1700

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