Miller School Students Celebrate Four Decades of DOCS Health Fairs

At 90, only a few things qualify as major in Gilberte Baldridge’s life: Attending church regularly and staying well are high on her short list. That’s why she exercises to Fit TV each morning and remains committed to yoga. And though she’s not one for bothering with doctors, at least not very often, she hasn’t missed one of the Miller School’s Big Pine Key Health Fairs since 1976.

Baldridge still has her original health fair medical records to prove it, and she proudly displayed them January 22 at the 40th anniversary of the Big Pine Key event. It’s the longest running of the ten health fairs organized annually by the Miller School’s student-run Mitchell Wolfson Sr. Department of Community Service, or DOCS. Through the free or low-cost health fairs that stretch from the Keys to Broward County, DOCS sees about 2,000 patients annually, and provides long-term primary and specialized care to hundreds more at three student-operated, physician-supervised clinics.

DOCS patients are always grateful, and, like Baldridge, many are devoted.

At the Big Pine Key Health Fair, Baldridge submitted to her annual battery of tests, then happily took pictures with students. She also posed with Mark O’Connell, M.D., senior associate dean for educational development, whom she met in the 1980s when he joined the UM faculty and helped out at his first DOCS fair.

“He’s been such a good man for all these years, and these students are just as dedicated,” said Baldridge, who commended the addition of the skin cancer station.

“I thank him,” she said. “I thank all of them. For them to be doing this for so long shows how committed they are.”

By the end of the day, UM faculty and students at the three Florida Keys Health Fairs in Marathon, Key West and Big Pine saw more than 700 patients at screening stations for blood pressure, diabetes, cholesterol, vision and glaucoma, hearing, osteoporosis, mental health, various cancers, and sleep and neurologic disorders.

“Many of our Big Pine Key patients look at the health fair and the care provided by our medical students as their important annual check-up,” O’Connell said. “Many of them actually refer to me as their doctor. I am a primary care physician and this is very rewarding for me. The patients are also proud of their continued participation and even compete with each other, boasting over who has been our patient for a longer time.”

The Big Pine Key Health Fair will always hold a special place in DOCS history. It’s where a handful of medical students came together and volunteered to provide medical screenings to people in need, at the urging of Iris M. Kiem, Ph.D., a former Department of Epidemiology and Public Health faculty member and Keys homeowner. That gathering evolved into today’s DOCS, among the largest medical student-run health initiatives in the nation. For the three concurrent Keys fairs, 250 students, 50 faculty members, and other volunteers made the long trek from Miami.

“Planning for the weekend was a major undertaking, especially with anticipation running high for the 40th anniversary,” said Ilan Epstein, a second-year student and project manager for the Florida Keys Health Fairs. “But, as always, the collective effort of students and physicians enabled us to bring vital health screening to hundreds of patients.”

Indeed, a tremendous amount of work always precedes each fair in Hialeah, Little Haiti, the Upper Keys, South Dade, Pompano Beach, Fort Lauderdale and other locations. But even with their meticulous preparations, students never predicted that, for the first time in its 16-year history, this year’s Little Haiti Health Fair would draw such a huge crowd that a second fair had to be held a few weeks later.

“It brings me great pride to see how we grow every year in the amount and quality of services we offer,” said DOCS executive director and fourth-year student Eyal Maidan, who began volunteering with the organization in his first semester. “I am confident that DOCS will continue to provide better care for as long as the need exists.”

“DOCS is an incredible organization for which I am honored and proud to be involved,” said third-year student Stefania Prendes, the director of clinics for the DOCS executive board who works closely with the student groups at the San Juan Bosco, Lotus House, and Caridad clinics. “I am always impressed at the end of each health fair and clinic night with the collaboration between students and faculty.”

In the years between the first Big Pine Key Health Fair and the establishment of DOCS, a multitude of new student groups started their own health fairs and also began serving at clinics, recalls O’Connell. When he became senior associate dean for medical education in 1999, O’Connell suggested that the groups consolidate budgets, create standards for services, ensure that students were fully trained in their volunteer duties, and standardize paperwork, charting, and supplies. The various groups came together under the DOCS umbrella in 2000.

“Over the years the quality of the services we provide at the health fairs has improved immensely,” O’Connell said of the program, which received a Health Care Heroes Award from the Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce in 2007 and a $75,000 annual grant for three years from the Mitchell Wolfson Sr. Foundation in 2006. “The foundation’s generosity has allowed us to standardize our services, base them on clinical evidence, and engage many more community partners to help provide additional needed services.”

With such success, DOCS wants to spread the model to other medical schools. But the group also wants to offer increasingly better service to its patients and learn about other innovative medical school programs that serve other communities.

That’s why, the day before the Florida Keys Health Fairs, the organization held its 2011 DOCS Leadership Retreat with students representing community service organizations at Eastern Virginia Medical School, Herbert Wertheim College of Medicine at Florida International University, University of Central Florida College of Medicine, University of Tennessee College of Medicine, St. Louis University School of Medicine, Northeastern University Colleges of Medicine and Pharmacy, and Florida State University College of Medicine.

Amanda Voehle, a third-year student and DOCS co-director who coordinated the retreat, believes DOCS’ decades of experience allow Miller students to “offer advice for nearly any community health situation,” but, at the same time, “we learn about other schools’ projects and get ideas,” including for fundraising and serving particular communities.

“The end result,” said Arsalan Siddiqui, a third-year St. Louis student, “is that everyone comes away with ideas for operating at an optimal level, which means more services for the people we serve.”

That includes people like Jeanette Ostendorf, 69, who has been undergoing annual screenings at the Big Pines Key Health Fair for 20 years. The full blood workup was especially handy in the years when she didn’t have health insurance.

“I take advantage of nearly all the services,” said Ostendorf, a Sugarloaf Key resident since 1986. “The students are very friendly, and very capable. We are thankful they take the time and effort to make the trip down here every year. The students are truly remarkable.”

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