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AURORA, Colo. (AP) — An Iraqi refugee and a medical student sat in a community center in suburban Denver, passing an orange plastic bottle of pills back and forth. The vial's contents rattled like a syncopated soundtrack for their conversation.
With help from an Arabic translator at Aza, University of Colorado student Marissa Hudak determined that the woman had mixed all her medications in the bottle. She was no longer sure which pill was for her thyroid ailment, for her joint pain or for her stomach problems that were particularly troubling that day. Hudak promised to call the woman's doctor to try to straighten things out.
Hudak and fellow med students are taking part in a project that allows them to experience global health care, offering advice and basic care to Aurora's diverse immigrant community. Many health care workers only encounter immigrants when they show up in emergency rooms with ailments that could have been prevented.
Aurora public schools serve students from 133 countries. Somalis, Ethiopians, Eritreans, Bhutanese, Burmese, and Nepalese are among those drawn to jobs in the economic hub of neighboring Denver, but who find cheaper housing in Aurora.
Dr. Jamaluddin Moloo, who started the project, believes busy doctors can treat patients more effectively if they understand the medical conditions newcomers face and the social and cultural conditions that influence their health care.
Moloo's students first get an in-classroom overview of what it's like for a newcomer to navigate life in the United States and learn about health care issues like tuberculosis and stress-related disorders they might see among immigrants. Fourth-year students and residents then partner with refugee settlement groups to give preventative health classes, make home visits to conduct screenings or to take them on field trips to pharmacies and Medicaid enrollment offices.
Dr. Michael Devlin, who teaches at Columbia University's medical school, said part of the importance of such projects is giving students a chance to see that they can help, even if they can't fix everything.
"Students absolutely come in idealistic," Devlin said. "They absolutely confront so many problems, it really is easy to become discouraged."
Similar efforts are underway elsewhere, including a Columbia project that started in the last year to help asylum seekers document torture and abuse. The Columbia effort was modeled on a pioneering program at Cornell.
In Colorado, Hudak is getting insight into the challenges and rewards of practicing medicine across ethnic and cultural divides. It can be simple to give advice, to tell people to get some Tylenol at the pharmacy or do yoga, Hudak said.
"But it's hard for some of these patients because they don't grow up knowing these things," she said.
The project also gives students contact with nonmedical specialists who can be resources for doctors: translators, nonprofits that help settle refugees like the Spring Institute or the federally funded Metro Community Provider Network, which offers low-cost health care and helped start a refugee clinic in Aurora.
Abu Haidar Hayat, a writer and journalist, fled the Iraqi city of Basra after being accused of unpatriotic reporting and losing his family in a bombing. At Aza, he watched Hudak strap blood pressure cuffs around the arms of his fellow refugees. He said Hudak looked like his daughter, who had been studying to be a dentist before she was killed.
"In the future," Hayat said, Hudak "will be a good doctor."
Hudak aspires to be a psychiatrist. During one visit to Aza, she delivered a presentation on post-traumatic stress syndrome, saying how common it is to be angry or anxious after experiencing violence. Afterward, people took her aside for private talks about nightmares and sleeplessness.
"It seemed like they'd never shared that with anyone before," Hudak said.
Just talking can be therapeutic, she said.
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