It was Dr. Kerry Spooner-Dean’s wish to bring health care to indigent children in the East Bay. It’s been the task of her family, friends and colleagues at Children’s Hospital Oakland to make this dream come true after her tragic death.
Sometimes having a health care facility a few miles away may not be enough. Sometimes people have to choose between feeding their children and spending the money on a cab to the hospital. Sometimes people have reason to fear institutions. But a child is always deserving of health care, so since 1998, Kerry’s Kids—a mobile health clinic staffed by volunteer physicians from Children’s—has provided health care, health screening, immunizations and health education to the needy in our midst: low-income children and families, battered women and refugees—ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances.
It’s Thursday evening and the December sun is setting early over the Bay. A white van pulls up to the curb in front of the Salvation Army. The driver, Bennie Smith, turns the engine off, and the generator-powered lights come up. Ariel Chairez—a recent Berkeley graduate who has volunteered at Children’s for two years and is now employed at the hospital—busies himself with arranging the appointment book, as well as some children’s books and stickers on the table. “This is the way it usually works,” Ariel explains as the van quickly transforms into a clinic. “I sign uppeople at the door and measure the kids’ height and weight. Then they come in and the doctors take their history. The exam room is in the back where they can have privacy. “And this is our storage room,” he adds, opening the door to what normally would be a bathroom. Easy.
A woman with four children drops by and asks whether she could have six toothbrushes for her family. Ariel hands them out. In the meantime, Diane Halberg, MD, arrives at the Salvation Army. She walks into the dining area and lets everybody know the van is outside. Two people sign up for visits.
Dressed in blue jeans, sneakers and a sweater, her hair pulled back in a pony tail, Dr. Halber fails to fit the stethoscope-over-starched-white-coat image of a doctor. But the genuine care in her voice speaks of healthcare at its finest. The first patient is a 3-month-old girl with a cough. Dr. Halberg measures her temperature and takes her history. She tells the mother the baby seems to be breathing comfortably and explains that she needs to look at the little girl’s ears because when children have mucus colds for a long time they are more susceptible to ear infections. The second patient is a Bosnian girl whose family recently arrived in the United States. She has a sore throat—most likely a minor cold—and her mother is grateful for the medicine the doctor offers. During the exam, they talk about the family’s journey from Bosnia, through Germany to the United States.
“This is why I like my job,” Bennie says as he gets ready to leave. “You meet all kinds of people; good people, you know.”
Each of the locations on the mobile clinic’s schedule (see sidebar on page 22) has a culture of its own, shaped by the location, the residents and the onsite physicians. The Henry Robinson Center, for example, tends to be the busiest, while the Harrison House—a long-term shelter—allows for developing stronger relationships and follow up patient care. But there are qualities that unite all the places and people involved.
To Ariel what stands out is everyone’s commitment. “I remember one day when Dr. Karen Kruger stayed until 9 p.m. because there were so many kids who needed to be seen,” Ariel says. “Those are the things that remain with me the most—when I see doctors willing to do whatever it takes to help the kids.”
Everyone at Kerry’s Kids shares a belief in the importance of bridging the gap that access issues create in health care. “Some of the people don’t have the means to go to the hospital,” says Kathy Dean, Kerry’s mother-in-law who is involved in coordinating the sites. “Others are fearful of any institution because it represents authority,” Kathy continues. “It’s really important to deliver care to them on their territory.”
“A great portion of the population we serve would be afraid to go to the hospital,” agrees Karen Kruger, MD, who works at the Harrison House. “If people have bruises, they may not want to go to the hospital. Undocumented citizens may have concerns about any institution sending them back,” she continues.
“The state of health care access for underserved families is awful,” Gena Lewis, MD, adds. “For example, this location [the Women’s Refuge] is physically close to Children’s. We could have seen these families in the hospital, except that they are in life-altering situations. Our coming to them might be their only shot at receiving health care.”
There are other advantages to delivering health care in the homes of people, Dr. Kruger adds. “When you know first-hand how your patients live, your medical plan is just going to work better,” she says. “I feel I do my job well because I see these kids in their environments. I’m able to understand that if an overweight kid lives in a shelter, it doesn’t make much sense to talk about eating five servings of fruits and vegetables because the child has no choice.”
To someone who hasn’t seen Kerry’s Kids at work it may appear that doctors and other volunteers get nothing in return for their commitment. In terms of material compensation, that is true. But nothing can compare to the reward of knowing what you do is right, or of going home at night with the memory of the many thankful faces seen at Kerry’s Kids.
“Helping one child is like helping all children,” says Sara Triest, respiratory therapist and asthma educator who works with Kerry’s Kids. “Nothing makes me happier than knowing I can make a difference at the moment, and when I touch one life, I feel I’ve touched thousands of lives.”
“It’s a really rich project on many levels,” Dr. Kruger says. “I feel honored to know the people—they are friendly, funny, giving.”
“The camaraderie is just amazing,” adds Edward Chu, MD. “We have it a lot at Children’s, which is why I work there, but at Kerry’s Kids it’s truly above and beyond.”
It took a lot of effort to start the mobile health clinic. Issues of insurance and malpractice complicated the process.
“In the beginning, when it was hard to believe it would work, it was important to have Kathy and Dan [Kerry’s husband] to keep the spirit up,” Dr. Kruger says. “But in retrospect, it was a great journey. We stuck together, cheered each other, learned a lot, and made it happen.”
They did make it happen, as Dr. Halberg illustrates: “Once, in mid-summer, I saw 10 kids out here, and at least one of them I had seen before and had given a first hepatitis shot, and we actually had a record of it. The kid remembered me and I remembered the family. I got a sense of continuity, and said to myself, ‘Hey, this is working, it’s solid!’”
“I wish you knew Kerry,” Dr. Kruger says at the end. “But in a way you do know her, because you are here and no place captures her spirit as this one does.”
The Richard Bach quote—“You are never given a wish, without also being given the power to make it come true”—appeared on Dr. Kerry Spooner-Dean’s residency application to Children’s Hospital Oakland. She was accepted and completed her residency in 1997. Her life tragically ended in May of 1998, the victim of violent crime.
Each year, the hospital awards a resident the Kerry Spooner-Dean Memorial Award that acknowledges a physician’s commitment to delivering health care to underserved communities. The 2001 award winner was Dana Weintraub, MD, who is a chief resident at Children’s and volunteers for Kerry’s Kids.
Kerry’s Kids was established to carry on her dream of helping organize a mobile health clinic to serve the children of indigent families in the Bay Area.
Today, Kerry’s Kids is supported by more than 800 donors who contribute from $20 to $20,000. The funds are administered by the East Bay Community Foundation—a permanent endowment of charitable funds dedicated to improving the human condition and enhancing the quality of life of the residents and communities in Alameda and Contra Costa counties. For more information about Kerry’s Kids, call 510-444-4326.
Reprinted from Children's HandPrints A Children's Hospital & Research Center at Oakland Publication
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