issue Spring 2021

The Future and our Community

By Yadira Sanchez Olson, Photos by Michael R. Schmidt
Lupe Rodriguez, director of Community Health Engagement, gives a COVID vaccine to a Gurnee YWCA member during the CCC's visit to New Hope Church.

Nurse practitioner Lupe Rodriguez, Community Care Connection (CCC) director, uses her bilingual skills to build essential relationships with Spanish-speaking patients who otherwise might not seek care for fear they won’t be understood.

“The challenge is that it’s not a one-size-fits-all approach,” Ms. Rodriguez said. “Providing care to different people means having to take into consideration their culture and its norms.”

Ms. Rodriguez’s parents emigrated to the United States from Mexico before her birth, and they didn’t become fluent in English until seven years later, she said. From that experience, she understands how not having full command of the language and culture triggers feelings of anxiety, apprehension, fear and sometimes humiliation. She also relates to how those feelings build walls that can keep people from asking for help.

Providing care to different people means having to take into consideration their culture and its norms.

Most of the patients the CCC treats are Spanish speakers — some new to the country, like her parents once were, and unaware of organizations that can lend them aid and provide information on what resources are available to help them thrive in their new home.

Colombian-born Eliana Henao, a Highwood resident, experienced Ms. Rodriguez’s support in early February while visiting the Nuestro Center in Highwood alongside her parents, where the CCC was administering COVID-19 tests.

The experience was made less nerve-racking, she said, thanks to healthcare team members ensuring she understood the process and telling her to call if she had any concerns.

“It made me feel at ease. I could ask questions about my results, even if I thought of them later,” Ms. Henao said. “You get so nervous sometimes about these things with the pandemic.”

Another member of the CCC's mobile vaccination team was Linda Tanni, APN. The week of March 15-19, the CCC's Care Coach delivered 307 vaccinations to community partners in Lake County.

A primary objective of the CCC is education. Just as important is making sure patients like Ms. Henao are connected to physicians who will be their long-term primary care providers.

Ms. Rodriguez said the healthcare system “can be confusing for people who have grown up using it — imagine if you don’t know the language and have no idea who to turn to.”

Working in immigrant communities, Ms. Rodriguez added, has connected her with people who have medical insurance through their work and are paying into it, but have never known how to access it. Others use the nearest ER for any and all medical issues, whether serious or not. That’s why Ms. Rodriguez believes in the power of health education.

“Lupe recognizes the need,” said Maytee Diez, principal of LEARN 9 Charter School in Waukegan. “She goes above and beyond to make sure that the community is provided every possible opportunity to access health resources and information.”

Ms. Diez added that Ms. Rodriguez has a devotion to the community and has worked extensively with the school to educate staff and parents. Ms. Rodriguez and the CCC have also provided no-cost flu vaccines and COVID testing.

That’s because Ms. Rodriguez isn’t one to back down from a challenge. Three years as a medic serving in the Army, she said, taught her discipline, organization skills, leadership and to never give up. She’s zealous in her efforts to use every patient interaction as an opportunity to educate alongside her small team of three.

In February and March 2021, her work took the form of virtual presentations to continue COVID education and testing, as well as vaccine information. The CCC team also tackled the logistics of launching a full roster of mobile COVID vaccine clinics throughout northern Lake County, with a goal to administer 102 vaccines at each clinic.

Seeking Awareness

The work of Laurine Tiema-Benson, CMS ’22, also focuses on healthcare education. She began an ongoing independent project while volunteering with the CCC that targeted obstructions to health care within the Black community.

The project — “Assessing Barriers to African American Healthcare Utilization at a Student-Led Pro Bono Clinic” — began by asking 25 community leaders who live or work in the Waukegan, Zion and North Chicago areas to share insight on what barriers exist to African Americans obtaining health care services, including at the ICC. She also explored what can be done to dismantle those obstacles.

RFU Health Clinics staff (from left) Twinkle Patel, PA-C, Katherine Blake, DO, and Lupe Rodriguez, NP, unpack and store the first delivery of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine delivered on Feb. 9, 2021.

As a Black woman whose parents emigrated from Kenya, Ms. Tiema-Benson recognizes there are upstream factors contributing to disparities that disproportionately affect the patient population at the Interprofessional Community Clinic (ICC), a pro bono treatment center at the RFU Health Clinics.

She recalls her parents working hard to support her and her siblings when she was growing up on the North Side of Chicago. She also remembers them facing challenges in navigating the healthcare system.

“I grew up without a regular physician from whom to receive continuity health care,” Ms. Tiema-Benson said. “We went to the health department if we got sick or needed our immunizations. That was my norm.”

Her study showed that in 2019, less than 3% of the ICC’s patient population was African American. She points out this is not reflective of the 11% of uninsured Lake County residents in this ethnic group. The study also revealed 48% of its participants had not heard of the ICC, even though 100% had heard of Rosalind Franklin University.

Under the guidance of Dr. Melissa Chen, the ICC’s clinical director, Ms. Tiema-Benson’s work is helping the healthcare center improve its outreach.

“The ICC has been a fantastic resource for the Latinx community ever since it opened in 2013,” Dr. Chen said. “Word-of-mouth has been our chief marketing strategy historically, because we have always kept quite busy without marketing; we have chosen to focus our limited resources on taking care of the patients that we do have.

“Now that the ICC is in a position to serve more patients, it is time to expand our outreach and make sure that we are truly serving the entire community we live in.”

Steps designed to strengthen the community’s awareness of the clinic include advertising with strategically located informational flyers. The ICC is also utilizing its Facebook page and community partnerships to virtually spread the word.

William Coleman, executive director of the social justice group North Chicago Think Tank, said he’s enthusiastic about the partnership between his organization and the university.

College of Pharmacy Associate Professor Danielle M. Candelario, PharmD, BCPS, (next to vehicle) 3rd year PT student Abigail Hill (at keyboard) and Lake County Health Department Regional Medical Director Shami Goyal, MD, (in white vest) were among the volunteers assisting with COVID-19 vaccinations at the Lake County Fairgrounds in January 2021.

“I hope it shows North Chicago citizens the importance of science, medicine and the scientific method when it comes to community development and activism,” Mr. Coleman said. He added that having access to someone like Ms. Tiema-Benson within the university is significant for the Black community.

There are also internal steps taken by students volunteering at the clinic to ensure intentional inclusion in every aspect of the ICC.

“This year, the student leaders created a diversity and inclusion task force to ensure intentional D&I incorporation in every aspect of the ICC,” Dr. Chen said. “To that end, they have added questions to the interviewing process for students, revised our mission statement and created an antiracist training module for future volunteers.”

Ms. Patel administers a COVID vaccination at New Hope Church. RFU delivered more than 2,100 doses to the community by late March.

Paramount in the work of Ms. Rodriguez and Ms. Tiema-Benson is a passion to help those who most need it within an ever-evolving healthcare system that aims to provide care for all without leaving anyone behind.

“I want patients to look at me as a resource who can help them navigate through health challenges,” Ms. Tiema-Benson said. “I want to empower them to take control of their health to be the best they can be.”