Adding Voices to the Numbers: Stories as Advocacy at Charlotte Community Health Clinic

Last week, the clinic that I work for, Charlotte Community Health Clinic (CCHC), participated in National Health Center Week. During this week, across the nation, Federally Qualified Health Centers (FQHCs) put on free events like pediatric immunizations and health fairs for the community. Since FQHCs differ from free clinics in that they are more dependent on federal funding, this week is also used in part to let elected officials learn more about the work health centers do. As a part of this task, we spent some time interviewing and photographing patients and staff to learn more about their stories so we could try and share them with the elected officials who attended our events. The end result was small note cards with quotes pulled from the stories of patients and staff that we put on the tables at our big celebratory breakfast.

It was a strange to see the people we had interviewed, including some patients who had talked to us for hours, whittled down to a sentence or two taken out of context. It felt like I had done our patients an injustice in not having conveyed the complexity of their stories. In describing the community we serve, our patients tend to get thrown in big categories, like “low-income,” “homeless,” “unemployed,” or “immigrant.” Yet, the first thing many of the patients I interviewed tried to do was make clear that that they didn’t fit neatly into one of those molds. From the patients who had worked as teachers or engineers for thirty-some years before being laid off, to the Pakistani immigrant who had been a US citizen for decades and paid taxes since day one, many of these patients were aware of the stereotypes that tend to be associated with those seeking low cost healthcare. For some, fighting those assumptions was why they were willing to share their stories.

The stories themselves ranged from frustrating to heartbreaking. There was the woman who searched and searched for somewhere to have a mammogram but by the time she found us and got one through our clinic she was diagnosed with Type II breast cancer and went on to have a double mastectomy. Or there was the family whose grandmother simply could not get her diabetes under control, not because she wasn’t trying, but because she had to eat whatever her neighbors were kind enough to give her. Since one son had been killed, and the other deported, she couldn’t afford to be choosy as she struggled to take care of all her grandchildren. Others were more pragmatic, describing how primary care keeps people working and keeps people away from expensive ER trips. Some stories, like the woman whose daughter had a lump in her breast but couldn’t afford the further testing to determine if it was cancerous, were almost inconceivable.

As it turns out, it’s impossible to capture the injustice of not being able to afford to find our whether your daughter is going to live or die in a sentence or two on a notecard. At the same time, it’s hard not to wonder who might be compelled to action if you could. At our National Health Center Week events, both Mayor Jennifer Roberts and Congresswoman Alma Adams made clear that there is a clear need for increased health care access in Mecklenburg County, and Congresswoman Adams acknowledged, “A medical emergency does not care if you are a Republican or Democrat.”  While that’s a hard statement to argue with, many across the country still seem to disagree about whether the care for that emergency should be a right or a privilege. For my part, I wonder how many more people would support the right to basic health care access if they had the opportunity to meet the people whose complex stories and struggles are lost behind the numbers thrown around regarding our health care system.  One challenge I look forward to as I continue my year at CCHC is figuring out how I can better amplify those voices, as I have no doubt that these are stories that deserve, and need, to be heard.

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