Bin Chen, a third-year student in the OHSU School of Medicine, remembers starting second grade in Portland a week after moving from China. “I felt out of place and that I did not belong,” Chen said.
He made it through that first year relying on a classmate who spoke his native language. Yet throughout his childhood, other students were not as kind and instead teased and suggested that he ‘go back to his country.’ When racist attacks against Asians ramped up with the onset of COVID-19 worldwide, Chen felt the sting. He worried, especially, for older adults in the Asian/Pacific Islander American (APIA) community.
Chen and OHSU School of Medicine classmates Dana Button and Huong Nguyen -- leaders in the nonprofit, multidisciplinary, student-run Bridges Collaborative Care Clinic – immediately went to work to ensure that the community had the support it needed and deserved. In partnership with Portland’s Asian Health & Service Center, they organized volunteer seamstresses last spring to sew hundreds of masks for community seniors and other vulnerable individuals, and delivered nearly 150 AHSC care packages of food, cleaning and hygiene supplies to elders who were becoming isolated in their homes.
A year later, they’ve teamed up again with AHSC to help give a precious gift: the COVID-19 vaccine.
Distributing doses to the community
AHSC-hosted clinics on Feb. 27 and March 6 administered more than 1,000 first vaccine doses to seniors in the Portland-Metro area, thanks to Yakima Valley Farm Workers Clinic, which operates as Rosewood Family Health Center in Portland and receives vaccine supply as a federally qualified health center.
The AHSC focused the clinic on seniors to whom the centers provides integrated health services, including engagement, public health and behavioral health. Staff members called the seniors at home in their native Mandarin, Cantonese, Vietnamese, Korean or Taishanese languages to book their appointments, breaking down technology and language barriers.
Button, Chen and Nguyen mobilized Bridges’ student volunteers from across OHSU academic programs to serve as patient greeters and health monitors alongside Portland Fire & Rescue, Linguava Translators, Rosewood Family Health Center and Multnomah County.
On March 27, the older adults returned for their second doses. This time, in alignment with updated CDC guidance regarding vaccine administration, the roles of the student volunteers expanded allowing them to give the medication to community members. The students will help complete the cohort’s second dose at the final clinic on April 3.
Students offer more than a vaccine
An Ruan, a second-year student in the OHSU School of Medicine Physician Assistant Program, jump-started his shift Saturday afternoon with a quick review of the vaccination process and then the opportunity to greet his first patient in Cantonese, immediately putting the older man at ease.
Weiqiong Ye pushed back his shirt sleeve, and Ruan applied rubbing alcohol while continuing to chat with him in their shared language, the older man’s eyes crinkling with a smile. Ruan explained the potential side effects, secured the needle to the syringe and asked in Cantonese: “You ready?” He then calmly delivered the shot.
“Pretty good service and good attitude,” said Ye of his vaccinator, as he sat in the post-vaccine monitoring area and noted, through an interpreter, that he felt well with no discomfort.
Erik Szeto, D.O., who founded the AHSC in the basement of the Chinese Presbyterian Church in southeast Portland in 1983, said it’s “a privilege and a pleasure” to work with the OHSU students.
Szeto and center leaders began partnering early on in their history with OHSU School of Medicine physicians David Kinzie, M.D., professor of psychiatry, and Paul K. Leung, M.D., clinical professor of psychiatry, to provide mental health services to Asian immigrants. OHSU served Vietnamese and other refugees, but immigrants who were not refugees often struggled to find services, he said.
Now OHSU students are broadening that partnership.
“Their enthusiasm is certainly inspirational,” said Szeto, who now serves as the center’s board chair, while Holden Leung serves as CEO. “Our seniors deeply appreciate the OHSU students for their compassion and their cultural knowledge. The students help them feel safe and well cared for.”
Many clients included praise on their post-treatment surveys.
"It is nice to have someone from the same region in China I am from and speaking my language to help me through this process,” wrote one client. “Thank you!"
Gratitude through service
The appreciation went both ways.
“Volunteering for our seniors at these vaccine clinics has been incredibly heart-warming and rewarding,” said Huong Nguyen, who, like Chen, is a diversity and expansion lead with the Bridges clinic. “I’ve not only been able to build clinical skills, I’ve also been able to use my second language to help the elders in my community.”
Nguyen said it’s important to recognize and address the emotional barriers patients have around getting vaccinated. “Our hope is to bring the vaccine to the patients at their community level to minimize fear and stress,” she said.
For Chen, the experience of caring for the Asian seniors is equally fulfilling.
“We want to be that friend for them,” he said. “But most importantly, we want them to see that we have not forgotten the values they taught us: to respect, listen to and take care of elders.”