Shifa Clinic volunteers respond to pandemic with culturally respectful care and a desire to make a difference
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(SACRAMENTO) - The bustling vaccination clinic in downtown Sacramento appears to operate like any other: Hundreds of patients check in for their COVID-19 shot at the registration tables and get immunized by health care staff wearing PPE.
But unlike other vaccination clinics in the region, this one is located in a mosque and managed by UC Davis students.
Over just the past seven weekends, the clinic has administered 7,600 vaccine doses.
The effort began in January. That’s when leaders with Shifa Community Clinic, one of 12 student-run free clinics affiliated with the UC Davis School of Medicine, realized that essential workers, including people in health care and those over 65, were having difficulty getting the vaccine.
This can’t be happening, they thought.
Shifa medical director Shagufta Yasmeen asked the students if they wanted to open a vaccination clinic and the response was a resounding yes. A group of undergraduates – including Desiree Rafizadeh, Meraj Alam, Hadia Lala Gul, and Dana Hazem – sprang into action as vaccine clinic managers.
They would be joined by two medical students who serve as Shifa co-directors, Khadija Soufi of UC Davis and Husni Abdul-Rahman of California Northstate University.
The students, working under the guidance of Yasmeen and physician supervisors George Meyer and Zahid Iqbal, helped acquire a pharmacy-grade refrigerator/freezer to store vaccine. They made connections with Sacramento County Public Health to provide up to 1,200 doses per week. They purchased medical supplies.
They put out a call for helpers – UC Davis School of Medicine students, UC Davis undergrads affiliated with student-run clinics, aspiring physician assistants and nurse practitioner students from the Betty Irene Moore School of Nursing, as well as volunteers from California Northstate University.
They sketched out a workflow, made phone calls to register patients who lacked online access, and trained and scheduled dozens of student volunteers.
Then, in February, they opened the vaccine clinic in the basement of the Muslim Mosque Association on V Street, next door to their own Shifa clinic.
“Once in a lifetime” opportunity
“The students are extremely enthusiastic because they can see the impact vaccination efforts will have on the community,” said Iqbal, a private practice internal medicine physician.
“Many students have described their involvement in the vaccine clinic as a ‘once in a lifetime’ opportunity to have such a significant impact in changing the trajectory of this pandemic,” he said. “They have worked tirelessly to make the vaccine clinic successful.”
Shifa started in 1994 and became a School of Medicine student-run clinic in 2005. It’s been a trusted space for the health needs of Middle Eastern and South Asian populations, though students serve patients of any background.
On a recent Sunday, the clinic drew patients from a multitude of races and ethnicities. The student volunteers collectively spoke a half-dozen languages, which has been helpful for persuading some vaccine-hesitant immigrants and refugees to get the shots.
Patients check in at registration tables then walk downstairs into the basement, which has four vaccination stations on one side of the room, and a 15-minute observation area on the other. (Those with limited mobility can get vaccinated under a pop-up tent on the main level.)
But a closer look shows how this clinic is different from others.
At the far-left corner, next to a cart holding dozens of rolled-up prayer rugs, is a section partitioned from the rest of the basement – the space is reserved for women who choose to get their injection in private.
“In our cultures,” explained Sirjan Mor, a clinic student leader, “not everyone is comfortable taking off a piece of clothing in front of everyone.”
On some days, the focus is on other cultures. Such as when volunteers with the student-run Clínica Tepati show up in their blue and black scrubs to immunize their Latino patients.
Giving back to the community
Students at the mosque are adamant about why they volunteer with COVID-19 vaccinations: They are eager to serve the community.
Shahbaj Ghotra, a first-year medical student, and Hadia Lala Gul, a second-year premed student at UC Davis, volunteer because they are the children of immigrants whose families gradually achieved the American dream. They see themselves and their families in the patients getting vaccinated. And now they want to help future generations that struggle to access health care.
“I can’t think of a better way to give back to the very same community that gave my family a chance,” said Ghotra, whose parents once lived in garages until they could afford to buy a house.
“Shifa Clinic is everything to me,” he said. “It is my community, and these are my people.”
Patients, meanwhile, are thankful because the clinic is easy to access, and students are respectful of the various cultures that are represented.
“Being so close to home and available to our community is very convenient,” said Taha Marmoush, 27, a financial analyst. “The registration process was very easy, and the staff was incredibly helpful and easygoing. They made the process that much easier and I am grateful for the doctors that were there were able to answer my questions.”
Amirah Beshir, 45, described the clinic as, “very organized, professional, and friendly.”
Vaccine clinic director and first-year medical student Khadija Soufi sometimes spends 12-hour shifts at the mosque. So far, she’s able to handle both the leadership duty and the medical school’s rigorous curriculum.
“Balancing medical school and all these other activities is something UC Davis has always encouraged and supported us to do,” she said.
Soufi is grateful that Shifa acted on an immediate need to open the clinic. She called it an “amazing opportunity” to serve the community, further develop leadership skills, and fight the pandemic.
Also, because the network of student-run clinics is providing only limited medical services due to the pandemic, the vaccine clinic has become a new opportunity for hands-on experience for many students.
“I never walked into medical school thinking I would get involved in a project of this scale and pull it off. I feel like it empowers us to realize that even though we’re students, we have a voice, and we can have an impact,” Soufi said
The students are finalizing plans for the next phase of their vaccination initiative: They’re expanding their clinic to other mosques and pop-up locations.
Anyone wishing to be vaccinated by Shifa Community Clinic volunteers can call 916-573-6941 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.