At a soup kitchen in the basement of the St. Agatha-St. James Catholic Church, located at the edge of the University of Pennsylvania’s campus, May graduate Kyra Edson provides free health services to those in need.
The soup kitchen is a two-fold operation, organized by the University City Hospitality Coalition, a nonprofit that offers hot meals five nights a week, a mailing address for those without shelter who want to vote and receive welfare checks, and referrals for housing, food and clothing.
The coalition, funded solely by donations, is aided in its endeavors by the Penn law, dental and medical schools whose students set up small side clinics to offer additional services to guests of the soup kitchen.
A former cognitive science major, Edson works with the team from Penn’s Perelman School of Medicine. She says that her volunteer position with the clinic, which she began last fall as a senior, has encouraged her to pursue a career in medicine.
“I worked in a lab when I came to Penn because I was really interested in science and research,” Edson explains. “But I felt that it wasn’t enough to be at the bench; I wanted to be involved in the community and interact with patients.”
Edson recognized the overwhelming need for some people in West Philadelphia and decided to apply her interests to a clinical situation. So for her first semester at the UCHC clinic she worked alongside fellow pre-med students.
“Pre-med and medical students hand out a week’s supply of vitamins and take blood pressure and blood sugar levels,” Edson says. “But we also counsel on preventative measures, like ways to decrease hypertension and monitor and control those levels.”
Doctors from Penn Medicine volunteer for an hour on Wednesday of each week, seeing patients who have signed up for personal appointments.
Edson currently concentrates on providing social health services, which she says are equally critical. She has helped find housing, confirm health insurance and record social-health histories for those attending the soup kitchen and clinic.
“Our check-ups are only so helpful if patients do not have insurance, a place to sleep or food,” Edson says. “There’s only so much you can do without those necessities.”
Edson is supervised by Alyssa Alloy, a post baccalaureate pre-health studies student who started working at the clinic two years ago. Alloy co-founded the social-services program at the clinic in January of 2012.
“The purpose of the program is to provide care beyond acute medical needs,” Alloy says. “We can help initiate the application process for medical assistance or sign patients up for food stamps or get them referrals through primary-care doctors.”
Alloy notes that the clinic is working to expand social services, which Edson says lacked presence and organization in her first few months at St. Agatha-St. James.
“We now check to see if patients have insurance, if they seek regular health care, if they have ever had to go to the emergency room,” Edson says. “We are trying to improve our system and follow up better with patients.”
Enhanced services and practices will require more funding. Edson notes that the resources for the health team are limited, with only one computer for social-health services and blood pressure cuffs that don’t always function.
“Navigating the benefits system is difficult, and patients need someone who understands and knows the process,” Edson says. “If the clinic received more attention, we could improve our care and help more members of the community.”
Alloy says that, despite the financial limitations, the clinic is working to evolve. Dermatology services have recently been added, and the medical team will soon be able to refer patients for gastrointestinal screenings.
“The clinic is also a great learning opportunity for students,” Alloy says. “It provides them with clinical experience in the surrounding community.”
Edson agrees. She believes that “it is important to give back as a medical student studying in a high-need area.”
Edson says that patients are grateful to have people who are willing to help, to listen and to send them in the right direction, although she admits that it can be upsetting to learn about the difficulties faced by those served at the clinic and to know there is only so much to be done.
Still, she says she is fortunate that she has been able to help a good portion of those who arrive at the soup kitchen.
“It is encouraging to see patients taking control of their health and note the improvements in patients who have made changes in their lifestyles,” Edson says.
In late August, Edson will begin a position as a member of AmeriCorps in a New York City community-health center. She intends to attend medical school in the fall of 2014.