Every Wednesday night from 5:30 to 11 at the Carrboro Community Health Center, patients without insurance have a safe place to get free medical treatment. At this clinic, UNC students from all studies — medicine, pharmacy and various undergraduate schools — come together to offer health care to a community in need.
The Student Health Action Coalition, or SHAC, is the nation’s oldest student-run health clinic. It serves a large population in the Chapel Hill and Carrboro area, including patients who do not speak English.
SHAC Interpreting Services provides the vital communication link for these patients to health care providers. SHAC Interpreting Services provides interpretation at all locations in the clinic, said Molly Crenshaw, the lead coordinator of the services. The program recently changed its name from SALSA — Spanish-speakers Assisting Latinos Student Association — to reflect the new Mandarin Chinese interpreting it offers.
“It’s for patients whose primary language is not English, but rather either Spanish or Mandarin, to kind of make it a more inviting environment, one in which they feel like they can ask any questions and get all the information in the best way possible,” she said.
Before becoming interpreters, applicants take a written and verbal assessment. After the initial screening, they are observed and trained on-the-job by a coordinator. Interpreters are assigned to different locations within the clinic depending upon their language proficiency — those assigned to the front desk tend to be less proficient than those assigned to the clinic, Crenshaw said. Interpreters can move between assignments as they gain proficiency.
“We really try and make sure that the patient has the best experience that they can have, but also we trust our interpreters,” she said.
Crenshaw said interaction with one specific patient has demonstrated to her how important SHAC is to the community. The first time she interpreted, she worked with a patient with severe back pain. Three months later she encountered the same patient.
“It just showed me that SHAC provides a service that reaches people that normally would never be interacting with the health care system at this frequent of an interval,” she said.
Mackenzie Dolan is a Spanish coordinator for SHAC Interpreting Services. She said she got involved with the program to maintain her Spanish skills and incorporate them into her pharmacy studies, and she loved it so much she took on a leadership role.
“I think it’s super important to be able to communicate with Spanish-speaking patients because they’re such a growing population,” she said.
Dolan said without SHAC, many patients would not have access to health care.
Xavi Velasquez, a senior biology major, is a Spanish interpreter for SHAC Interpreting Services. He said helping Hispanic immigrants access health care is a topic close to his heart, since he would accompany his father on doctor’s visits and translate between his father and the doctor.
“I think it’s really awesome that the medical school offers such a meaningful program that, at the same time, benefits medical school students and pharmacy students and the local community,” Velasquez said.
Carolyn Rapp is a senior studying quantitative biology. She has been interpreting Spanish with SHAC since her first year and has seen a variety of patients, including those who come directly from work and undocumented immigrants.
“It’s really a safe place too, I think is the most important part,” she said.
This year, Rapp ran for Miss UNC with the platform “Love SHAC” to raise money for the clinic. Though she did not win, she received a donation from a UNC graduate that matched the amount of money she would have been awarded had she won.
Rapp said working with SHAC and SHAC Interpreting Services has changed her goals for the future. She hopes to research health disparities across different populations, but before she goes to medical school she wants to spend a gap year living and working in a Spanish-speaking country. SHAC has opened up these possibilities for her.
“It feels like you’re doing more than just serving a general population,” she said. “You’re giving a lot more; you’re able to help people that desperately need it, and you’re able to give them hope.”
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