In Massachusetts, Temple Turns Into Free Health Clinic To Serve Immigrants

By Eduardo A. de Oliveira, EthnicNewz and FI2W reporter

Jaime Viviani is treated at Congregation Beth-El, a Jewish temple in Sudbury, Massachusetts
(Photo: Elizabeth Mendonca/Brazilian Times)

SUDBURY, Mass. — Despite the economic crisis, the Barbosa family will have a healthy holiday this year.

Three generations of the Brazilian clan are undocumented and uninsured. But Alessandra Barbosa knows that if her mother or her daughter ever need health care they can find it at Congregation Beth El, a Sudbury Jewish temple which becomes a walk-in clinic on Tuesday evenings.

In spite of all the talk about how Massachusetts Health Reform has increased access to care, there are those, mostly undocumented immigrants, who are falling through the cracks.

“Last year, we provided care to 515 patients through 753 visits, nearly all the patients ranging in age from 19 to 64,” said Kim Prendergast, resource developer with MetroWest Free Medical Program. “About two-thirds of them were Brazilian and 15 percent, Hispanic.”

What started four years ago as a “band aid” to care for about twenty low-income people has morphed into a reliable source of treatment for forty patients a week. I strolled through the temple last week as nurses rallied language interpreters to help with the majority-immigrant crowd.

One patient was Jaime Viviani, 58, a newspaper distributor for Brazilian Times, who came to request a test for glucose (blood sugar).

“What do I need a hospital for?” said Viviani, “I can get the health care I need here.”

In Massachusetts, there has been a spike in the number of religious congregations taking on the task of informing and treating their own communities.

This year, Ashland evangelical church “Ministério Vem Viver” (Come to Live Ministry) organized a packed seminar on sex education. For two hours, the pulpit was the perfect place for Dr. Tércio Ribas to chat about “healthy sex positions” and “mutual respect in bed” with a hundred Brazilian couples.

At Congregation Beth El, patients waiting for service can make for a chaotic scene. But the quality of care is guaranteed by a team of fifteen professionals, all volunteers, such as pediatric nurse Karin Segan.

“We’re also excited to be offering monthly clinics on chronic illnesses, with two endocrinologists, two nutritionists, and a psychiatrist,” said Segan, who in addition to volunteering on Tuesday evenings, works as a nurse during the day.

The most common diseases treated at Beth El are acute illnesses, bronchitis, chronic aches, women’s health issues and untreated chronic illnesses, such as diabetes and high blood pressure.

The humanitarian service provided is obvious and the benefits are very tangible.

“If you go to a private dermatologist, you have to pay $150 for consultation,” said Elias Pereira, a wall painter from Marlborough, MA who was concerned about a skin rash on his chin. Pereira was referred to Beth El by a free health clinic at a church in Hudson, MA, where the staff didn’t include a dermatologist.

“Although we sometimes feel a little lost, we know they are here looking out for us,” Alessandra Barbosa said. Her mother Ana Tereza is satisfied with the service, but she sees it just as a temporary helping hand.

“Having a health plan would be better, for sure,” she said.

Samara Reis Coelho, a volunteer interpreter, said that the majority of patients told social workers that without Beth El’s care they would have nowhere to go.

The MetroWest Free Medical Program also helps patients through the step-by-step process of signing up for health insurance. The program is expanding services to the First Parish Unitarian Universalist Church, in Framingham, MA on Thursday nights and Friday afternoons.

“It’s not important where the caregivers come from. But that the people who need help, get help,” said Ruth Riceman, a former librarian who volunteers at the program.

For Riceman, the best reward comes from simply seeing the patients’ satisfied faces.

“Last year people brought baked cookies to thank us,” she said. “And a grateful Brazilian house cleaner asked if she could clean our bathrooms and kitchen.”

Congregation Beth El is located at 105 Hudson Road, in Sudbury, MA. (After the Thanksgiving holiday, service will resume on Tuesday, Dec. 2, 2008.)

> Here are other local religious sites that offer free walk-in health clinics:

Guild of Our Lady of Providence Free Medical Program: St. Bernard’s Church, 228 Lincoln St., Worcester, Mass. (508) 798-6818

St. Anne’s Free Medical Program: 130 Boston Turnpike (Rt. 9, across from Spag’s), Shrewsbury, Mass.,
Tues. 6 – 8 p.m. (508) 757-5154

Epworth United Methodist Church: 64 Salisbury St., Worcester, Mass. (508) 752-2376

Wesley United Methodist Church: 114 Main St., Worcester, Mass. Eye and ear care only. (508) 799-4191