The Pandemic Comes to Clarkston

This month’s thought leader piece is written by Dr. Gulshan Harjee, a Founder of the Clarkston Community Health Clinic. In 1979, Tanzanian-born Gulshan Harjee turned her dreams into a reality by immigrating to America and attending medical school. Years later, she sold her thriving primary care practice to better serve marginalized and immigrant communities with the free clinic, Clarkston Community Health Center. As the most comprehensive free clinic in the Clarkston, Georgia area, CCHC fills the gap in healthcare needs by providing live medical consultations to eligible patients below the federal poverty line. The service-model platform engages like-minded people who are passionate about giving back – as a result, it’s almost entirely volunteer run. Since 2015, the clinic served 5,400 patients, providing over 1,000 individuals with dental care, 400 with mammograms and 200 with lab work – all completely free of charge. Having once been an asylum seeker herself, Gulshan is privileged to provide free medical care to refugee groups and live out her version of the American dream.

An invisible virus brought us to our knees starting early April 2020. Our bustling clinic, which usually served 5500 patients each year with comprehensive free care came to a halt. The Clarkston Community Health Center (CCHC), where we once saw 150 plus patients a week was quiet for a few days while our volunteers figured out new strategies of how to move forward safely with immense creativity.  

We were able to quickly transition to telemedicine and were able to form some amazing collaborations to serve the community. With the generosity of ExamMed we adopted their system seamlessly at no charge. Clients with WIFI could see a clinician on their device screen while those with phone lines could receive care securely through RingCentral. Our student volunteers and translators continued to scribe in the virtual rooms with the providers. They could log on from anywhere. We even had a volunteer continue to provide telehealth when they were deployed for COVID work to Germany! We were also able to receive PPE donations from FODAC, Medshare, Emory Decatur Hospital and Atlanta Faceshield to meet our PPE needs to continue serving the community for in person services, and were able to disseminate face masks to clients. Additionally, the Ismalia Community was very generous and Rotary Emory Clifton provided food donations as part of our drive through services.

Almost 70% of our patients are refugees or immigrants who earn their living as essential workers with long commutes and work shifts. Many are living in multigenerational homes experiencing financial hardship. Buying PPE is a stretch when one has to make a choice between rent and food. It’s also a challenge to isolate family members who contract COVID.  Through the generosity of Glitter of Hope, our patients with COVID received meals and food for 15 days or until they were able to return to work. Our inhouse pharmacy stocked by Dispensary of Hope and Direct Relief provided medication. 

There’s no book to read about how to operate a free clinic in a pandemic. CCHC discovered that we could actually be very efficient despite the challenges. We offered drive through services with staff wearing full PPE. Patients texted information including their blood sugar readings the day before to a clinician who could adjust insulin and medication doses. Then patients drove through the CCHC parking lot to receive refills of free medications including insulin. As the first free clinic in Georgia to be awarded a point of care lab, this became a true additional gift during the COVID pandemic for our drive through patient care service. We could run lab work on site rather than having to refer patients elsewhere.

CCHC offered over a 1000 free COVID tests in collaboration with the DeKalb Board of Health. Clarkston was a hot spot and at one point we recorded close to 20% positives. Thankfully, due to the efforts of Mayor Beverly Burks and The Clarkston Coalition the group was able to provide free masks, hand sanitizers and educational materials in various languages to our Clarkston residents. We are also providing free flu shots on Sundays and look forward to providing free COVID-19 vaccines in the future.

The pandemic has also reminded us that our space is no longer serving us well. This is giving our CCHC capital campaign steam to move quickly to reach our goal of 2 million dollars to build a new state of the art facility. We see virtues of compassion, generosity, kindness, caring and sharing like we have never seen before, and hate turning into love in our community, country, and world.

 At the time of writing, the first health care workers are receiving COVID-19 Vaccines and I hope to be writing about this pandemic in the past tense very soon! There is a light coming through the tunnel. Do you see it too?

Due to COVID-19, our services may be different than what is listed. Please contact us before coming to our office.