South LA clinic 'a microcosm' of nation's anxieties

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Lourdes Flores Valdez says she got her diabetes under control after she was able to sign up for Medi-Cal under the Affordable Care Act's expanded eligibility rules. Sitting in an exam room at the UMMA Community Clinic's Fremont Wellness Center in South Los Angeles, she suddenly veers away from discussing the health law and starts talking about her husband, who's in the U.S. illegally.

"If the president takes away my husband's job, or he deports him, what will happen?" asks Flores, who cleans houses for a living. "How am I going to take care of the children?"

Clinic staff say they're hearing these types of concerns a lot these days from their mainly Latino clientele, about one-third of whom are unauthorized immigrants. Many patients are worried about losing their access to health care and about possible deportation. They're not alone: The American Psychological Association's latest annual survey finds that two out of three Americans feel stressed about the future of the country.

The survey says immigrants and Muslims are particularly anxious. Many are frightened by President Donald Trump's push to repeal the Affordable Care Act, crack down on illegal immigrants and impose a ban on people trying to enter the country from certain Muslim-majority countries. 

'The worry is so deep'

Some patients have stopped coming in, says Dr. Yousef Turshani, UMMA's chief medical officer.

"They're worried that we may be a target and are concerned to even come get their health care, because there may be a raid," he says in an interview at the group's main clinic, less than two miles away from the Wellness Center. 

Some patients worried about losing their Medi-Cal are stockpiling medications, says Turshani.

The clinic had been planning to expand its mental health services before the election, but now that Trump is president, Turshani says the need is even greater than before: there's a backlog of people waiting to see a therapist. 

"The worry is so deep for some patients that they feel it’s almost like another medical problem, because it contributes so much to their daily stress," says Dr. Cesar Barba, another UMMA provider.

Staff say despite the uncertainty in the country, they strive to make their clinics safe places for all patients. A group of Muslim-American doctors opened the clinic 20 years ago, motivated by a desire to help the community after the Rodney King riots. 

A group of Muslim doctors founded the UMMA Community Clinic 20 years ago, motivated by a desire to help the community after the Rodney King riots. Four of its nine doctors are Muslim.
A group of Muslim doctors founded the UMMA Community Clinic 20 years ago, motivated by a desire to help the community after the Rodney King riots. Four of its nine doctors are Muslim. Maya Sugarman/KPCC

Some of the walls at UMMA's main clinic are decorated with paintings featuring Arabic scripture. Turshani translates one phrase: "'In the name of God, most gracious, most merciful.' It's something that's placed in rooms to welcome people, to say that this is a place where you'll be treated well."

'The only country I know'

Patients aren't the only ones feeling the need for reassurance. Four of UMMA's nine physicians are Muslim. 

Dr. Sahar Abdelrahman, the daughter of Sudanese immigrants, was born in the U.S. and raised in Madison, Wisconsin. She wears a hijab and says Trump's attempted travel ban was upsetting.

Dr. Sahar Abdelrahman is a staff physician at UMMA Community Clinic in South Los Angeles. Abdelrahman's family is from Sudan; she's been working at the clinic for two years.
Dr. Sahar Abdelrahman is a staff physician at UMMA Community Clinic in South Los Angeles. Abdelrahman's family is from Sudan; she's been working at the clinic for two years. Maya Sugarman/KPCC

"This is the only country I know, this is my home, and to not feel like you're welcome here, it's hard," she says.

Noting that the policy and rhetoric coming out of Washington are stressing out both the clinic's patients and staff, UMMA CEO Dr. Miriam Vega says, "We're kind of like a snow globe, or a microcosm of what's occurring at the national level."

Turshani says his religion provides a guide for how the clinic's physicians should juggle their patients' stress and their own anxieties.

"There's actually a teaching in Islam which is, when God wants to reward someone, he puts them through a challenge," he says. "There are analogous sayings, like what doesn't kill you makes you stronger."

 

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