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Gulshan Harjee, M.D.

Cofounder and chief medical officer at Clarkston Community Health Center, Clarkston, Georgia

 

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Lynsey Weatherspoon

My Atlanta suburb of Clarkston, Georgia, has been called the Ellis Island of the South, thanks to its burgeoning population of immigrants and refugees. Many are low-income and uninsured and thus have few resources to prevent illness or get quality treatment when they are sick. I started this volunteer-based health center because I was a refugee, too, so I know how hard it can be to navigate America’s complex medical system when you come from a different culture and don’t speak the language. Our free clinic has helped more than 7,000 patients and saved quite a few lives. Plus, the community’s younger health care professionals can get global health training without leaving town.

The problem I’m trying to solve

More than half of Clarkston’s residents are foreign-born — hailing from 50 countries in the Middle East, Asia, Africa and other parts of the world. With so many new arrivals, the poverty rate is over 30 percent, and residents speak some 30 different languages. It’s easy for people to fall through the cracks of the medical system. Our clinic provides no-cost language- and culturally appropriate care to any resident whose income is 200 percent of the federal poverty limit. I started the center in 2013, offering care on Sunday mornings, but now we see patients full-time. And we’re about to break ground on a huge state-of-the art facility so we can care for even more. 

The moment that sparked my passion

I was born in Tanzania to a minority Muslim family, so I know what it’s like to flee persecution and to feel unmoored in a new land. I also lived in Pakistan and Iran before I had the privilege of coming to the U.S. as an asylum seeker and completing my medical studies. For years I had a thriving private practice, but I always knew I wanted to give back and say “Thank you” to American society for the gifts I was given. At first, I kept my practice open and did this part-time, but the results of the 2016 elections made me realize no expansions of health insurance or Medicaid would be forthcoming in my state. Soon after, I left my practice to dedicate myself fully to the clinic. 

What I wish other people knew

Health care is a right, and one that affects so many aspects of a person’s life. For example, a person with good insurance can hold down a job and provide for their family — something that also contributes to a prosperous, happy and safer society. But if you don’t have insurance and can’t get care when you’re sick, feeding your family can be a struggle; and when your children are ill, they lose out on their education. All of society suffers when this happens. The patients we serve frequently work and pay taxes, but they can’t afford to buy health insurance and generally don’t qualify for Medicaid, so accessing health care would otherwise be a constant struggle. 

Advice to others who want to make a difference

Nobody knows exactly what they’re getting into when they start an endeavor like this. When I was in private practice, everything ran on autopilot in terms of patients, employees and the insurance contracts that paid me. Here, the steady stream of patients is the only thing I can count on. The rest — volunteer medical staff, funding, our new building — all come via begging. But knowing we’re making a huge impact on people’s lives and on society makes it all worthwhile. Whatever issue you feel strongly about, use your voice to share both your own personal experience and the effects your efforts are making in the world.

Why my approach is unique

We offer a wide range of medical services, including cardiology, rheumatology, diabetes care, women’s health, mental health, dental care and more. In addition to illness care, we provide a range of wellness services, including screening mammograms that caught early breast cancer in three of our patients who are now fully cured — something especially important to me as a stage 2 breast cancer survivor myself. We also do in-house lab work and give free prescriptions for insulin and other medicines that prevent a chronic illness from taking a life.

Our clinic is not aligned with any religion or other entity, so people from all walks of life feel comfortable coming here, especially since our health care professionals — in many cases immigrants or children of immigrants themselves — speak their language. We’re sensitive to their cultural and ethnic differences, such as the female modesty some of our patients observe that requires them to see only female practitioners.

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