Photo Credit: Jessica Silverman
UGA students and co-founders of Shifa Clinic Athens Faiz Saulat (red tie, left) and Ummar Jamal (red tie, right) pose with other volunteers at a clinic open house Sunday, Mar. 4.
They’re not even doctors yet, but five University of Georgia students are already bringing health care to those who need it in Athens.
In March 2017, five pre-med majors—Hamzah Ali, Vraj Patel, Abdus Subhan, Ummar Jamal and Faiz Saulat—co-founded Shifa Clinic Athens, a free health-care clinic, first on Huntington Road, then at a more permanent location on Hawthorne Avenue. A branch of the Islamic Circle of North America (ICNA) Relief USA, Shifa Clinic Athens is one of seven volunteer-based Shifa clinics across the nation. “The main purpose [of the Shifa clinics] is to provide services for humanity,” says Muhammad Uzair, a physician and director of operations for all Shifa clinics nationwide.
The students began organizing the clinic around February 2016 with funding from ICNA and help from local physicians, most notably Adeel Rahman and Zaigham Butp. Physicians supervise all of the student volunteers at the clinic.
Although they were enthusiastic about having the opportunity to open a clinic to help the uninsured of Athens, the process was a massive challenge for the team. “It was a huge learning curve,” Ali says. “…It was beyond just understanding what a clinic is, but being able to prove to our superiors that we are capable of executing this project.”
The group, who all had clinical experience, had to learn the organizational aspects of starting a clinic. “When you start something like this, you have to network and start with the administrative side,” says Saulat, who will be discussing his experience at the upcoming TEDx UGA symposium. “I had seen clinical work… transitioning over into the administrative work, and starting this up, it was a completely different thing. It took some patience.”
One challenge for Saulat was balancing his two lives as a student and an administrator at a professional clinic. “I remember I’d be sitting in class and responding to emails to physicians,” he says. “It was kind of a duality. I’d be working with students all day, and then the rest of the time I’d be in physicians’ offices and board meetings with directors.”
Every other Shifa clinic in the nation has at least one part-time manager whose job it is to help manage and oversee most of the administrative tasks. Such is not the case for the Athens Shifa Clinic. “This clinic is unique in that it is solely run by volunteers,” Uzair says. “They do everything on their own.”
One thing the team learned was the importance of balancing roles within the clinic. For a while, they were the ones doing almost all the administrative tasks necessary to run and promote a clinic. For about the first two months that the clinic was open, patient flow was extremely low, which worried them. “The stress moved from, ‘Can we do this?’ to ‘Are we doing this correctly?’” Ali says. “We stepped back and realized we focused so much on the logistics [of the clinic]. We didn’t think about reaching out to [patients].” The team recruited some students from the Terry College of Business in November 2017 to develop a marketing and outreach plan.
In addition to balancing their newly assumed roles as clinical administrators with being students, the team also had to remain conscientious about conducting themselves professionally. “I had to stop wearing sweatpants as often,” Saulat jokes.
One of the team’s biggest fears opening up the clinic was that, because they were still undergraduates, they wouldn’t be taken seriously despite the sense of professionalism they tried to assert. “That first meeting where we were presenting to the local physicians, we didn’t know if we wanted to tell them we were students,” Saulat says.
At the same time, that intimidation and fear of not being taken seriously was part of what propelled them to work hard in executing the project. They wanted to prove that, even though they were undergraduates, they still had the same drive and work ethic to accomplish something a professional could. “You can make a difference at any stage of your life,” Ali says. “…We knew we have a short period of time in Athens, and we wanted to make something long-lasting that would continue with undergraduates coming in.”
Shifa Clinic Athens, located at 435 Hawthorne Ave., is open every Saturday from 11 a.m.–2 p.m. Athens also has two other free clinics: Mercy Health Center (call 706-425-4044 on Tuesday between 4–5 p.m. to schedule an appointment) and the Athens Nurses Clinic (240 North Ave.; open 9 a.m.–3 p.m. Monday–Thursday and 9 a.m.–12 p.m. Friday). In addition, the Athens Neighborhood Health Center (675 College Ave. and 402 McKinley Dr.) charges for health-care services on a sliding income scale.
UGA hosts its annual TEDx event—an offshoot of the popular TED Talks lectures on YouTube—on Thursday, Mar. 22. Besides Faiz, speakers will include:
Alumni: DeRetta Cole Rhodes on supporting women as leaders in the community and corporate world; Facebook head of product strategy Godfrey Powell addressing fears of technology; and Avid Bookshop owner Janet Geddis on the importance of vulnerability in creating community.
Faculty and Staff: Atmospheric sciences professor Marshall Shepherd on the dangers of listening to alternative news sources rather than scientists; Katy O’Brien on how rehabilitative strategies for traumatic brain injuries can change our deeply held beliefs about ourselves; and “Ranger” Nick Fuhrman bringing animals on stage to illustrate how everyone can be a teacher.
Students: Apurba Banerjee on creating sustainable, biodegradable plastics from algae; and Elizabeth Hardister on how individual disaster preparedness leads to community disaster preparedness.
In addition, local Americana/jam band Family & Friends will perform.
Registration is required. For more information and to register, visit tedxuga.com.