Steven D. Kamajian, DO
It's another busy night at the Westminster Free Medical Clinic in Westlake Village, CA. A volunteer records a homeless patient's complicated medical history and takes his vital signs. As a nurse watches, the two talk about his illness and what has been bothering him lately, including his frustration over finding a job and an affordable apartment. The volunteer reassures the patient and reports to the doctor, who performs the exam and then discusses the differential diagnosis with the volunteer.
This scenario looks much like any other occurring daily in homeless shelters across the country. But a closer look reveals that the volunteers are mostly high school students, some as young as 14. Their mentor at the clinic, FP Steven D. Kamajian, takes the youngsters under his wing to teach them how to care for othersand takes extraordinary pains to show the patients kindness and compassion.
Nearly a decade ago, Kamajian began seeing underprivileged patients in a janitor's broom closet in Westminster Presbyterian Church, a member of the Conejo Valley Winter Shelter coalition. The coalition comprises 27 churches and synagogues in Ventura County, near Los Angeles.
A short time later, he founded a free clinic at the church on Wednesday nights. "I went to the pharmaceutical representatives and doctors in the area and asked them to donate medical supplies," he says. "Then I bought empty plastic vials and dispensed medicine to sick patients. If the patient was pregnant and needed to see a gynecologist, I made an appointment and paid for it. It's better to take care of these problems before they become catastrophic."
Says Cindy Vinson, the clinic's manager: "He believes it's his responsibility to provide medical care to those who can't afford it. He's calm and reassuring with patients, and he takes the time to explain their conditions and the treatments. They write him thank-you letters, and on rare occasions when he's not here, I sometimes see patients come close to tears because they want to see him."
Three years after the clinic started, a volunteer's teenage daughter asked to help. "From there it cascaded," says Kamajian. "Students from virtually every high school in the area began to volunteer."
So many students showed up each week, in fact, that Kamajian started a formal program. Now each student has an allotted time in the clinic and is assigned to a certain crew. Every crew has a student supervisor and is carefully overseen by adult volunteers. Nevertheless, says Kamajian, "the students are given a lot of responsibility. From taking the initial history to giving out the pharmaceuticals, they're very much involved in patient care."
Kamajian loves teaching the students. But the greatest lesson students can take from the clinic is kindness. "They develop a social conscience here," Kamajian says. "They learn how to care for their brothers and sisters in the community."
The clinic has 12 adult and 36 student volunteers, as well as two doctors, a nurse practitioner, and three RNs. Paramedics, respiratory techs, and clinical lab scientists help out as well. "The model is so simple," Kamajian says. "I'm hoping to be able to present it to other communities."
Kamajian finds time for the free clinic despite running his own busy solo practice, in which he doesn't share call. "My wife and two daughters are wonderfully supportive."
This year, some of the Westminster Free Medical Clinic's first student alumni volunteers began medical school. With the lessons they've learned from Kamajian, they'll be fully aware of their responsibility to others, right from the start.
Rosie Roantree. Doctors Who Go the Extra Mile: Teaching kids about medicine--and kindness. Medical Economics 2001;19:101.