The Need for Health Equity Has Never Been Greater

On an early Sunday morning in February, Tania Park, the Puget Sound Clean Air Agency’s Equity and Community Engagement Manager, and I volunteered for the Seattle/King County Health Clinic. It’s an annual four-day clinic hosted by the Seattle Center Foundation at Seattle Center to provide essential medical services to those who need it the most.

Anyone is eligible to receive medical, dental, or optical assistance free of charge. For many, the clinic is the only time each year they can afford these services.

The clinic is usually held at Key Arena, but since the stadium is currently under construction, the clinic was delayed while organizers looked for other spaces. This means a significant number of patients had not had their high blood pressure treated, tooth infection cared for, or received working eyeglasses for over a year and half.

We started our shift at 5 a.m., but were told that many had already been lining up since midnight. At 6 a.m., the doors opened and patients started the orientation process.

Our/my job was to assist each patient (or family) once they filled out their initial paperwork. Once they completed that process, we partnered them with a language interpreter, if necessary, and escorted them to the building where they’d receive their most needed services.  

The person who I will remember forever was named Henry. He was a middle-aged to older Asian man with a Mariners ball cap and clearly worn clothes. As soon as I greeted him, he asked my name and how I was doing. As we walked to the dental services, he expressed his gratitude for the clinic and all the volunteers staffing that day. I was struck by his gentle and softhearted nature and thought to myself that I have a lot to learn about being grateful. If Henry could find ways to be appreciative of the small way I was helping him, then I should do a much better job of expressing gratitude for the many advantages and privileges I enjoy in my life.

An hour and half later, there Henry was again at the front of the line. He remembered me and, again, was incredibly patient and sweet despite his obvious discomfort. He told me he was going back through the orientation process to get a second tooth removed because it was causing him pain. If he was lucky enough, he hoped to get a third tooth fixed by the end of the day.

I left our short interaction wondering how we, as a country, struggle to take care of people like Henry. Why, in the shadow of some of the most profitable companies in the world, is a clinic like this even necessary?

All day, the clinic treated individuals and families from a wide range of backgrounds and ethnicities. It brought to light for me the often fine line between experiencing homelessness and not. For many, life is just one or two strokes of bad luck away from quickly spiraling towards living in your vehicle or on the street. According to one analysis, over half of personal bankruptcies in the United States are due to medical bills. And no wonder since the average American household now spends $5,000 per year per person on health care.

It’s also a vicious cycle. If you do experience homelessness, you’re much more likely to suffer from a serious health condition for a variety of factors, including hunger, reduced access to medicine, and a lack of personal safety.

Let’s not forget as well the role system-wide racism plays in creating and exacerbating health disparities for people of color. Black and brown folks consistently see worse health outcomes than white folks, in large part because of the multiple ways racism pervades our environmental, food, education, transportation, and economic systems. We see this happening right now during the COVID-19 pandemic as black Americans are dying in greater numbers from the virus.

Despite the inequities of our health care system, the whole experience gave me new admiration for our health care workers, a large number of whom volunteer every year for the clinic. Amid the current COVID-19 crisis, it’s easy to see how that they are the ones on the frontline of disease and deserve our utmost respect and support.

My short time volunteering at the clinic gave me a lot to reflect on. It also was one of the single most rewarding days I’ve been involved with. Please consider volunteering at the next clinic. You can learn more about the Seattle/King County Health Clinic here.  

By Landon Bosisio, Communications Specialist, Puget Sound Clean Air Agency