'It Feels Good to Give Back'

‘It Feels Good to Give Back’

Phoenix medical students volunteer at a medical clinic in Mexico started by a Creighton alumnus

By Jonathan Higuera

Once a month, medical students from the Creighton University Health Sciences – Phoenix Campus embark on a four-hour drive to the Mexican seaside town of Puerto Peńasco, better known to U.S. tourists as Rocky Point. They go to be part of a larger all-volunteer group of medical professionals staffing a health clinic that is providing needed medical care to the town’s residents. Those residents are the ones often far from view from the city’s popular tourist sites and sandy beaches on the Sea of Cortez.

The Rocky Point Clinic, as it is named, offers a free medical clinic one day a month. The stocked shelves of prescription drugs, medical equipment and other resources are donated by U.S.-based hospitals and other health care providers. But the biggest resource the clinic provides are the professional medical volunteers, who mostly come from Arizona to staff the clinic. On any given clinic day, between 100 to 200 or more patients are seen and treated by 20 to 40 medical volunteers.

Creighton medical students have been part of this medical entourage to the clinic since 2017. In return, they are getting a strong international experience without having to miss a day of clinical or classroom time.

“The resources aren’t the same as we would find in a Phoenix clinic,” says Briggs Hoyt, a fourth-year Creighton medical student who has volunteered four times at the clinic. “But the standard of care and the reach are the same.”

The care ranges from treating relatively minor cases of back pain or prescribing medications for ongoing issues to handling more serious cases of diabetes complications, hypertension and open wounds. A surgical site is available at another location, so cases requiring certain types of surgery can be referred there.

On this beautifully sunny Saturday in February, about 30 medical volunteers — physicians, medical students, nurses and nursing students — are in full help mode. The volunteers hail from several hospitals and medical schools, including Creighton and Dignity Health St. Joseph’s Hospital and Medical Center.

On this trip, Hoyt gets a medical history from the wife of a 55-year-old wheelchair- bound patient who has had multiple strokes and who is unable to speak. Now he is having a hard time swallowing. This is a good example of the challenging cases the volunteers will see on this day that would likely not get the needed medical attention were it not for the clinic.

After obtaining as much history as possible, Hoyt consults with Robert Garcia, MD, assistant dean of the School of Medicine at the Phoenix campus, and John Anwar, MD, an emergency room physician at St. Joseph’s Hospital and Medical Center and a Creighton associate faculty member. Both are serving as attending physicians.

The patient’s wife is given advice on how to better prepare soft foods until the clinic can further evaluate when and how a feeding tube can be surgically inserted. Surgeries are scheduled at the off-site clinic. The timing often depends on when a volunteer specialist is available.

“If he had come into our hospital at St. Joseph’s, we probably would have done a swallow study on him,” says Hoyt.

For fourth-year medical student Justin Kochanski, the volunteer experience serves as a reminder of why he wants to be a physician.

“Third-year students often get slammed with a lot of responsibilities and it’s go, go, go,” he says. “For me, this is more of a spot check of why I got into medicine. It just feels good to give back and be engaged.”

It’s also a valuable student-learning experience of practicing medical care with fewer resources than they are accustomed to. “Seeing people who don’t have constant access to care changes your plan,” says Kochanski. “It requires you to think in a different way.”

For example, he suspected a kidney infection in one patient, but instead of taking a culture and getting back to the person with the results, the attending physician and his team of students decide on a different plan.

“You might decide to give them antibiotics based on what you suspect because you may not see that person for a month or longer,” Kochanski says. “It’s more like a rural clinic in that respect.”

Garcia says the international experience gives students a “firsthand look at underserved populations in other countries.” It also gives them a chance to see the dramatic differences in the health care systems of different countries.

At least one Creighton medical school faculty member is required to be on the volunteer trips. About five Creighton faculty members rotate the assignment among themselves so it doesn’t fall to one person to staff each clinic.

Thomas Gillespie, MD, a Creighton professor of surgery, was one of the faculty members in attendance at one of the free clinic days last year. He spent his day at the surgical site repairing hernias. His wife, Jaya Raj, MD, who directs the internal medicine residency program at St. Joseph’s, spent her day in the clinic as an attending physician for 10 Creighton medical students who were there that day.

“Much of what we provided wasn’t direct medical care,” says Gillespie, who also serves as clerkship director. “Many of the patients lacked basic medical knowledge and just needed someone who would listen to them and offer basic advice.”

He notes that the Creighton students’ open and thoughtful manner in dealing with the patients opened the door for a better experience for them and all involved. “I will say the level of respect and dignity the Creighton students showed them is what the patients really responded to,” Gillespie says. “You could tell they really appreciated it.”  

As Creighton’s Phoenix campus expands with programs in nursing, pharmacy, occupational and physical therapy, and a physician assistant program, there will be more opportunities for Creighton students and faculty to engage in service throughout the U.S. Southwest and extended region.

“Our students have had the opportunity to see the needs in Puerto Peńasco, Mexico, and reach out to them with the same spirit of compassion and service that we offer here in Phoenix,” says Randy Richardson, MD, interim vice provost and regional dean of medicine for Creighton University Health Sciences – Phoenix Campus. “They work side by side with faculty members to give excellent medical care and take time to reflect on their experience.”

The Rocky Point Clinic’s existence is a testament to the Stavros family. Co-founders George, MD’62, and Susie Stavros moved to Rocky Point in 2011 after successfully starting, owning and managing methadone clinics in Phoenix and other areas around the country. George, a 1962 medical school alumnus, also practiced family medicine for decades before moving into owning and running drug addiction clinics.

During his time as a family medicine physician, he met Susie, who had been an RN at drug addiction clinics in Phoenix. They began focusing on helping drug addicts and opened their first methadone clinic in 1984 in the Arcadia area of Phoenix. In 1998, they did their first mission trip to Rocky Point with their church.

Last year, the Stavroses sold Community Medical Services to a group that has expanded services as the country’s opioid addiction problem has grown. Their two sons and a daughter remain with the organization. One son, Nick, is currently the chief executive officer of the Scottsdale, Arizona-based company, and the other, Mark, MD’93, is medical director for several of the clinics.

The deeply religious family had been active in providing medical services in Rocky Point prior to moving there, but as residents they stepped up their time commitment to the medical clinics.

As George Stavros notes, “Retirement is not in the Bible.” They began running a mobile health clinic, which led to a permanent spot at a local church. The patients were mostly poor and uninsured.

Eventually, their good work got the attention of the town’s then mayor. Grateful for the services they were providing, the mayor found a permanent facility for them deep in a barrio away from the beaches. They have been at the current location for nearly four years. And it is growing, with the help of volunteers, many of whom come from Arizona churches and congregations to volunteer as part of their mission.

“I always wanted to be a missionary and it took me 50 years to do it,” says George, only half joking.

On the land where the Rocky Point Clinic is located, the volunteers are building dormitories to house volunteers who provide children and others with myriad services. Because of the Stavroses’ religious convictions, clients do receive a healthy dose of Gospel in the form of prayer to start off the day and are asked to be in a prayer group. Most of the clients gladly accept the spiritual offerings.

The medical volunteers also benefit from the couple’s generosity.

Many, particularly students, are provided a place to stay at one of several homes the Stavroses own in their development, which sits between two luxury condo towers along Sandy Beach. They also provide volunteers with a home-cooked meal in the evening after the clinic is done. All is free for the volunteers.

“This wouldn’t be possible if someone didn’t house us and feed us,” says Hoyt. “Medical students usually don’t have much expendable income.”

Both Hoyt and fourth-year student Emily Peterson, BS’16, say another positive takeaway from their volunteer experience has been practicing their Spanish-language skills. Hoyt says he wants to build on the Spanish he already knows, and Peterson says she doesn’t want to lose her current level of proficiency.

“It makes a difference when you can talk to people in their own language,” adds Peterson. The clinic experience was her first time in Mexico, despite growing up in Huntington Beach, California, which is only a couple hours north of the U.S.-Mexico border.

While medical care is a staple at the clinic and the need for more supplies is ongoing, the facility is growing and will provide other services. In between clinic days, the facility serves as a community center named Palabras de Esperanza. It offers a food-assistance program, youth clubs, tutoring services, computer lab, English classes and education classes that allow youth to get the Mexican equivalent of a GED. It also provides preschool and sports programs.

Hoyt, who plans to continue volunteering at the clinic even as it gets more challenging because of the rigors of medical school, has had several international volunteer experiences. He likes this clinic’s ability to have continuity in care.

“I’ve done a lot of volunteer work and a lot of groups don’t have the best model for international care because there is no follow up,” he says. “This clinic is held monthly and the people who come often return every month for prescriptions and care.”

Indeed. The entire experience has extended Creighton’s legacy of caring for the whole person and the underserved around the world.