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Chapel Hill, NC  27599-6210
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For immediate use

April 27, 2001 -- No. 214

UNC students bring medical help to homes of local elderly

UNC News Services

CHAPEL HILL -- Eighty-three-year-old Annie Brown, thin with leathery dark skin that covers her as loosely as her nightgown, is curled under a thin pink blanket in her Chapel Hill home. Her back, bent almost at a 90-degree angle by scoliosis, sinks deep into the soft mattress as she and her granddaughter watch Wednesday afternoon cartoons.

Her room is quiet and comfortable, filled with pictures, memories and medical supplies.

The serenity, contrasted by the laughs and shouts of the active children in the living room, is barely broken by the two University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill students, clad in white coats, silver stethoscopes and wide smiles, who unceremoniously enter, anxious to see their patient.

"Hi, Mrs. Brown, how are you today?" asks a cheerful Carolyn Chu, a first-year UNC medical school student from Raleigh.

Chu and her colleague, Laurie Anderson, a second-year pharmacy student from Raleigh, sit next to Brown’s bed, among toys and bedpans, to take Brown’s vital signs and to catch up on the events in her life.

The students observe that Brown’s heart rate is up, her breath is short, her daughter, Margaret, just bought her a new aloe plant and her grandchildren are still trying to learn how to clean the house properly.

This scene is a familiar one for Chu and Anderson, who visit Brown periodically as part of the Mobile Student Health Action Committee, a UNC organization started in fall 2000 by students to bring free health care into the homes of Carrboro and Chapel Hill residents who can’t travel to or wait in doctors’ offices. Currently, 20 students participate in the program, assisting 10 local patients.

"Basically, Mobile SHAC means ‘mobile’ because for a lot of patients, it’s not easy for them to get out to a doctor," Chu said.

Chu and Anderson cannot act as regular doctors yet, but they can serve as bridges, connecting patients to physicians at UNC Hospitals by assessing their health and reporting their findings to appropriate medical professionals.

"We get in there and see how they are doing, see if they’re stable," Chu said. "In a lot of ways, we’re (their) advocacy."

Envisioned by David Yale, a master’s degree candidate in UNC’s schools of public health and medicine, Mobile SHAC is a spin-off of the 32-year-old SHAC program, an interdisciplinary free medical clinic run by UNC students. Mobile SHAC was designed to serve the older patients in the community who aren’t physically able to visit the SHAC clinic or financially able to visit other doctors, Yale said.

"I saw that (SHAC) was not serving many geriatric patients," he said. "I thought Mobile SHAC would be a good way to serve that population."

Currently, Mobile SHAC serves this group in the Carrboro-Chapel Hill area by pairing patients with students from the professional schools the SHAC clinic encompasses – medicine, nursing, pharmacy, public health, social work and dentistry.

Students visit one patient as often as needed and then report to doctors at the SHAC clinic or in the School of Medicine, who follow up on the patient’s condition.

The primary goal of Mobile SHAC is to serve elderly patients by assessing their health and then putting them in contact with physicians who can prescribe medicine or perform other necessary procedures based on their needs, Yale said.

"Mobile SHAC can provide key intervention in the lives of the seniors in the community by monitoring blood pressure and other vital statistics and being a liaison in an increasingly complex medical system," he said.

Mobile SHAC was also designed to serve younger patients who aren’t physically able to visit the SHAC clinic, though none is being treated currently, Chu said.

"Most of our patients are older, but it is really an open program," she said.

The students who volunteer for the Mobile SHAC program, which is funded by a $3,000 UNC student organization public service grant, also benefit from the visits. They learn how to work in conditions outside of the hospital environment and how to cooperate with students from other medical fields, Yale said.

"The students go and help people in the community, on the patients’ turf, which is very disorienting and a valuable education," he said. "They also learn how to work with other students from different disciplines, which will be a valuable skill (for them) in the future."

In their most recent visit with Brown, Chu and Anderson sat with her for 30 minutes, longer than the typical doctor’s visit. They asked her questions about her health, checked the dates on her medicine bottles to make sure they were still current and even shared a few laughs about Brown’s grandchildren.

Brown said she was thankful for Mobile SHAC because she couldn’t always describe her medical problems to doctors via telephone. She needed someone to actually see her condition and then decide how to help her, she said.

"I think it’s a good thing, ‘cause when (Chu and Anderson) come and check me, they know what’s what," Brown said. "If (doctors) call and ask me, I don’t know what to tell them. That’s the reason I’m glad the (students) come around and check me, ‘cause I know I need checkin’."

UNC students interested in why health care was not available to indigent people in the local area started the SHAC program in 1967. In 1968, it became a campus organization and is now recognized as the oldest student-run free clinic in the nation.

The SHAC clinic, which operates from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. on Wednesdays at the Carrboro Community Health Center at 301 Lloyd St., serves more than 200 patients a year. Volunteer doctors offer patients of all ages free services from minor ailments to AIDS testing and psychological counseling. SHAC also runs a free dental clinic from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. on Wednesdays at the Orange County Health Department inside Carr Mill Mall.

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(Cramer is a senior journalism and mass communication major from Panama City, Fla.)

Note: For assistance in setting up photos or other visuals of Mobile SHAC, please contact Deb Saine at (919) 962-8415.

Contact: David Yale, Mobile SHAC coordinator, (919) 969-1119 or
News Services contact: Deb Saine, (919) 962-8415