Lola Mayes rushed home from work mid-morning because one of her daughters was ill and needed urgent care. Her daughter’s Medi-Cal insurance had recently been cut. Like the other times her family needed medical attention, she took her daughter to UMMA clinic.
The UMMA clinic, which stands for University Muslim Medical Association, is a haven of medical relief to over 15,000 patients just like Mayes.
Just a few blocks from the Mayes’ home, UMMA clinic sits at the heart of south Los Angeles and provides free or low-cost care to the unemployed, homeless, and low income residents who do not qualify for Medi-Cal.
“I feel comfortable coming here. For a free clinic they don’t make you stand out as though you don’t belong. They treat you with respect, like a decent human being, even when you don’t have insurance, and that kindness makes you want to come back,” said Mayes.
Although UMMA offers free services, they stress giving their patients quality medical care. Not surprisingly, the clinic gets a lot of patient applicants–many times, much more than they can accommodate.
For this reason, UMMA has had periods when they closed the clinic to new applicants to make sure that the clinic doesn’t become like free county facilities that often provide depersonalized, subpar treatment, said Dr. Mansur Khan, one of UMMA Clinic’s founders.
Their team of physicians and staff adhere to the highest standards of care. Everything is taken into account–from keeping the clinic clean and treating the patients with cordiality and politeness to fostering a good doctor-patient relationship by making sure patients see the same doctor every time they come, said Khan.
“We treat our patients like they’re in a private clinic in the best neighborhood. Just because these patients are poorer or uninsured doesn’t mean our standards should be any less,” said Khan.
The morning that Lola Mayes came to UMMA clinic, she filled out a few forms for her daughter, and soon, it was their turn to be seen by the doctor. The efficient service is just one aspect of the clinic that keeps Mayes coming back.
“At other places you wait all day for something that takes five or 10 minutes. You get so angry and frustrated that it just makes you sicker,” said Mayes.
UMMA is one of the few operating free clinics in south central LA, which is one of the most medically underserved regions in the nation. For a lot of its residents, UMMA clinic is the only access to medical care.
“[Without UMMA], I would lose my mind. We would have to take other measures–catch a whole lot of different buses, endure a lot of pain and humiliation to try to get to another place,” said Mayes.
Aside from medical services, UMMA Clinic provides free tax services annually, free legal clinics, and semi-annual health fairs. They also host food and clothing distributions.
“Health is not just the absence of disease, it’s the wellbeing of the patient, so we try to address as many needs as we can,” said Khan.
UMMA Clinic has received much commendation and media attention for its services to the high crime, at-risk South LA community.
For the clinic’s 10 year anniversary, UMMA was recognized by Congresswoman Maxine Waters on the floor of the House of Representatives, and this past October, UMMA was one of three clinics invited to the White House to discuss the pivotal role of free clinics in the medically underserved community.
But what makes UMMA remarkable isn’t its wide-scale recognition. It’s not the high quality of service. It’s not even the fact that it serves so many people from just a 3000 square foot building. What makes the clinic stand out more than anything else is that it started out just over a decade ago as a volunteer project by a group of college students.
“The idea for it really developed out of conversations over coffee,” said Khan.
UMMA began as a student organization in 1992 spearheaded by Muslim medical and graduate students at the David Geffen School of Medicine and Charles R. Drew University.
The seven students who started the project wanted to put the principles of their Islamic faith to action.
“As Muslims, if we see something wrong we have to fix it. We’re responsible for our community,” said Khan.
The group of pre-med, medical, and public health students decided that a free mobile clinic that would provide basic screenings, vaccinations, and eye exams would be an effective way to put their discipline to work for the impoverished south LA community.
With no financial support, the group began asking different companies to donate the materials they would need to begin their project. In the next year, they were able to secure everything from exam tables to computers through donations just based on the idea for the clinic.
“We were surprised how responsive people were to us, how happy they were to give us everything, because for them, it was essentially a write-off,” Khan said.
Their small project evolved when former Los Angeles councilwoman Rita Walters met with the group and introduced the idea of a standing clinic. With Walters’ help, the group was able to get funding and a site.
In 1996, four years after its conception, the UMMA Clinic opened its doors for the first time. The group got the name from a derivative of the arabic word “ummah” which means community.
“We wanted the community to know that we are Muslims and we are doing this because of our faith,” said Khan.
“[The patients] understand that its a Muslim clinic, but they aren’t threatened by it and they don’t feel that their faith is being disrespected,” said Khan.
Now, almost 13 years after it was founded, UMMA still runs on the value of volunteerism that it was founded upon at UCLA. The clinic staffs six regular volunteer physicians, and a team of students from UCLA’s UMMA Volunteer Project (UVP).
Students involved with UVP learn how to take patient vital signs, assist with mammogram screenings, and review and update patients’ blood pressure and hypertension charts, along with helping the staff with the day-to-day operations of the clinic.
“Through volunteering I have been able to see individuals who truly live difficult lives,” said Raouf Iqbal, a fourth year Environmental Sciences, B.S. major who is a project director for UVP, “I’ve learned not take advantage of what I am so fortunate to have.”
Iqbal’s experiences at the UMMA Clinic have changed his outlook on healthcare. He said he now feels a duty to “fight for those who are treated unfairly by society.”
“It is more important to help others than to try and make the most money. The satisfaction gained from making a difference truly is priceless,” said Iqbal.