Clinic founded by NU prof aids Bolivian poor

Christina Chaey

Since 2001, Feinberg Prof. Mark Molitch and his wife, a Loyola University professor, have run a free health care clinic in Bolivia.

The couple founded Centro Medico Humberto Parra when a patient of Molitch’s wife, Bolivia native Susan Hou, opened their eyes to the country’s pressing health care needs.

“Once we had a little familiarity with the country, we came to appreciate the poverty and the medical needs of the people there,” said Molitch, an endocrinologist.

Bolivia, the poorest country in South America, is host to a slew of prevalent health issues including diabetes and hypertension, said Andrew Gerst, the clinic’s North American coordinator, who came back in January after a five-month stay. He added that the Bolivian government has also had difficulty providing its citizens with provisions like an effective police force, an ample food supply and adequate housing.

“Things we take for granted just don’t exist there,” Gerst said. “The whole idea of even going to a doctor is very new.”

The clinic, which has fewer than 10 full-time staff members, sees about 100 to 200 patients a week from 12 neighboring villages. Most health problems Bolivians face are the result of malnutrition and a poor sanitation system that makes it easy for dirt or fecal matter to contaminate food and water, Gerst said.

Since its founding eight years ago, the clinic has expanded in both size and impact, Gerst said.

“More importantly, we’ve grown in our connection with the community,” he said of the relationships the clinic has developed with hospitals in Santa Cruz.

Volunteering with Centro Medico is an integrating experience, said Ami Shah, a second-year Feinberg student who fulfilled a minor in global health as an undergraduate at Northwestern.

“I’ve done study abroad programs where I felt like international students were isolated,” said Shah, who spent six weeks at the clinic last summer while working on an independent research project. “Here, I was living and working and hanging out with people from the town I was working in. I was a part of their life, and I really got to understand it and appreciate it.”

Currently, the most significant problem facing Centro Medico is funding, which comes entirely from private donations.

Molitch said he would like to see the university support initiatives like Centro Medico in a larger effort to engage NU with the global community. He added that he would like to see more students get involved through volunteering.

“Actually seeing the people, and seeing how they respond, and seeing them receive medical care that they otherwise wouldn’t get is the positive aspect, obviously,” Molitch said. “And they are grateful for it, too.”

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