Shahida Farooq – in her traditional shalwar kameez and chadar – bares her right arm for the physician to examine her swollen joints, which are diagnosed to carry a form of arthritis. She jokes that in her hometown of Karachi she has help around the house but here, she is the ‘maasi,’ maid herself. I ask her why, then, did she leave that life behind to be here in Chicago, wishing soon after that I had not.
A few months ago, her son was shot while working at a convenience store and the right side of his body was left paralysed. With glistening eyes, this strong breast cancer survivor breaks down as she recounts that she moved to the US to be with her son. His young wife, also here with her mother-in-law, stands beside her patiently. They drove almost an hour to the only clinic that provides free-of-cost premier healthcare to members of the community who have no health insurance.
The Pakistani Descent Physician Society of Illinois (PPS), under the umbrella of the Association of Physicians of Pakistani Descent of North America (APPNA), opened this free health clinic in 2009. APPNA, which has been in operation for 35 years, is headquartered in the Chicago suburb of Westmont, Illinois and has brought together motivated doctors sprinkled throughout the United States to volunteer at free clinics, perform charitable acts, and has also provided assistance in times of dire emergencies when natural disasters hit both the US and Pakistan.
As you drive away from the shimmering city of Chicago with gleaming towers of glass and concrete, the bluest waters of Lake Michigan and the America you see in the movies, some of the bitter truths of living in this country hit you like the wind on a cold, blustery day.
The scenic views of the third largest city in the country left behind, you reach the suburban town of Westmont, a few miles south of Chicago. Here you will find a diverse population of various ethnic backgrounds living side by side, taking advantage of this APPNA centre.
Open on Saturdays due to its nature of being run by volunteer physicians, medical students and community members who have other responsibilities during the week, the clinic caters to about 25 patients on a given day in the four hours it is open. With an increasing demand from the patients, PPS hopes to gain more support to start a mobile clinic and also begin providing services on Wednesdays in the future.
As I walked in, I was pleasantly surprised by the set up and warmth that emanated from the people and surroundings. Uzma and Afia, young student volunteers greet you at the reception with an eagerness to be helpful. Most of the volunteers are from Pakistan but there are some friendly faces from India and the US – all genuinely happy to contribute to this cause.
Clinics are no fun place to be, but as a smiling patient Tasneem Abbasi commends, he is highly satisfied with the treatment but also especially comfortable because he can speak to the doctors in Urdu. An environment of culturally infused respect and mannerisms, it was like walking into a family gathering. I happened to catch Dr Rizwan Farooqi, their coordinator and physician, crouching on the floor, holding the feet of an elderly patient.Volunteers working at the Pakistani Descent Physician Society of Illinois clinic in Westmont, Chicago Area – Photo by Saman Sheikh for Dawn.com
The clinic is open to all and not just the South Asian community of whom approximately 40 per cent are without health insurance. While, almost a fifth of the entire population lives without it and has to rely on government-assisted methods or do without proper healthcare altogether.