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Care, Welcome, Serve: When medicine meets ministry


In his remarks leading up to World Day of the Sick, Pope Francis said, “To care for the sick is to welcome them; to serve them is to serve Christ!”

These words resonated with Peter Le, co-founder of St. Joseph Primary Care, a direct primary care medical organization in Raleigh. Mr. Le and his wife, ThuHuong Trinh, a medical doctor, felt a call to care for the sick in their community.

Using Dr. Trinh’s extensive medical training—which includes 20 years of experience and degrees from Princeton University and the Medical University of South Carolina—and Mr. Le’s communication expertise, they sought to provide comprehensive, affordable and personal care to people regardless of their income, insurance, faith or documentation status.

SJPC opened in 2014 as a membership care, or concierge, practice. Since that time it has offered a model where patients pay an annual fee, like a gym membership, to see Dr. Trinh as many times as needed throughout the year.

A primary mission of SJPC is to follow the tradition of Catholic healthcare and follow life-affirming teachings of the Church, which includes encouraging the use of Natural Family Planning and compassionate hospice care at the end of natural life.

After years working in both large and small hospital settings, Dr. Trinh saw the need for better relationships between doctor and patient. She wanted a practice that offered an opportunity to look beyond presenting symptoms and address chronic stresses and unhealthy behaviors.

At the heart of it, she wanted patients to have more one-on-one time with their physician. And she wanted that situation for all patients, including those who don’t speak English. They are at a greater risk than others, she explained, and sometimes have a hard time communicating with medical professionals. And their heath may be at a further disadvantage if they fear seeking medical care because they are undocumented.

After seeing too many instances of issues that could have been more easily resolved if they were caught sooner, Dr. Trinh decided with her husband that it was time to do something about it.

Day of Caring takes care to the people

The couple knew they couldn’t sit back and wait for people to seek them out. Instead, since their founding, they have organized two events, each called a Day of Caring.

In October, SJPC held its second annual Day of Caring at St. Michael the Archangel Church in Cary.

For weeks before the event, parishioners and SJPC got the word out to the community about this “backyard medical mission.” Patients registered ahead and received a full day of primary medical care.

Nearly 200 patients of all races, cultures and languages walked through the doors that day. Each patient was greeted with a warm hello and efficient registration, traits often seen in traditional doctors’ offices.

Students from local colleges and volunteer translators were present for non-English speakers. If they needed help, their volunteer translator walked with them through the whole visit. Patient Martha Palacios, an immigrant without medical insurance said, “Volunteers are here, taking you by the hand and staying with you the whole way. It is wonderful because we are nervous.”

Ms. Palacios added that letting people speak in their native tongue made a big difference. “I help take care of a lady who is 102 … I have seen a lot of doctors with her. They ask me concerns about her,” she said. “Sometimes I worry because I don’t know the exact word in English that I would use in Spanish. And I don’t want to tell them something wrong. Today, the doctor spoke Spanish, and it’s so nice because I feel comfortable and know I am saying what I mean to say.”

After an initial health screening that included blood pressure, height and weight, patients were escorted to have blood drawn and receive flu shots. They also received time with a nurse who asked questions to determine potential risk factors.

Giselle Pymento, BSN/RN, works at a Duke medical clinic and volunteered at the Day of Caring in 2015 and 2016.  

“It’s such a blessing to help people. I work at a clinic … and I know there is a desperate need for healthcare and that people can’t always afford it,” she said. “Today’s a really good day to just give back to the community and [allow patients to] see nurses, have their vitals done and talk to providers.”

The Day of Caring gave patients one-on-one time with a doctor to discuss any issues that may have come up during screening.

Arelis Dominguez Perez, a St. Michael parishioner, took part in the event and learned that she had a tumor in her foot and that her husband, Patricio, had a bacterial condition that required medication.

For her, the diagnoses were important. And the news explained why her husband hadn’t been feeling well. But the way they were treated was just as important as anything they learned that day.

“I love it,” she said to an interpreter. “I love how they welcomed me, and how the doctor talked to me.”

The Day of Caring incorporated agencies outside SJPC. The Wake County Health Department set up women’s health exams that focused on screenings for breast and cervical cancer. A registered dietician offered a nutrition class. And a dentist, Smiles of Cary, gave dental screenings.

Sarah Connelly, a registered nurse, volunteered for the first time at the 2016 Day of Caring. She emphasized the importance that screenings and education can provide.

“What we are doing is simple, but it’s very important. Many of the people here today have manual labor jobs. Maintaining their health helps them continue to work and helps them to survive doing difficult labor. Health is important to all of us, but when you’re out doing manual labor, and with so few resources, then having a health problem like diabetes or heart disease can really … leave you destitute,” she said.

The care continues

After the event, Ms. Perez, 33, and her husband became SJPC patients. They enrolled in Project Access, a care program that cuts costs for visiting area medical facilities and hospitals.

“With this program, they are now able to go to REX Hospital and 24 other specialists throughout Wake County for no charge. They only have to pay a small amount of co-pay … ranging from $10-$150 per visit,” Mr. Le said. “Project Access is part of the N.C. Medical Society. Patients can enroll regardless of their immigration status.”

Reaching hundreds, treating one at a time

As Mother Teresa famously said, “Never worry about numbers. Help one person at a time, and always start with the person nearest you.”

It’s a saying Dr. Trinh, who was born in Vietnam, and Mr. Le, an immigrant who credits the U.S. for much in his life, live by.

“We worked our way through and America gave us so much. It’s wonderful for us to have a chance to give back to the community,” he said. “Truly and sincerely, from the bottom of our hearts, that’s what it is all about; giving back. What an honor to be able to give back.”

- by Mandy Howard