Community Service: Bringing Health Screenings to the Uninsured

This week, mother nature has proven to be a bit of a drama queen.

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For the third time this winter, NYC has been pummeled with snow. This isn’t such a bad thing for winter weather lovers like me. In fact, I’ve spent the last few days marveling over our January snowscape with my camera, as you can see:

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But as fun as it is for me to frolic and snap photos of snow covered branches, I can’t help but think about New York’s homeless population, and what they experience when the weather is like this. I took a bus out of the city during our first big blizzard, at the end of December, and was so saddened to see how many people had crowded into Port Authority’s entranceways during the wee hours of the night. Winter’s fury is no laughing matter for those who don’t have easy access to heat and shelter.

Just as shelter and warmth are precious, so too is health care—both urgent and long-term. This can be especially true for the elderly in colder months. The plight of America’s uninsured is hardly news to any of us, but now that I’m pursuing a career in health care, it’s an issue that hits home for me in ways it didn’t before. With that in mind, I participated in a wonderful, student-organized initiative this week: a day of free health screenings for the uninsured and undocumented in New York City.

The idea is this: a doctor (in this case, a doctor from St. Luke’s Roosevelt) arrives at a local Church (the lovely Church of the Ascension on 107th Street) and offers his or her services for the day. The services are intended to uncover health issues that may be undiscovered, but may also prove to be chronic: high blood pressure, for example, or high blood sugar. Giving patients—whose identities are kept confidential—an early warning will help them to manage these conditions before they become life-threatening. Free clinics and ERs can help to treat heart or manage attacks, diabetes, or hypertension, yes, but the goal here is preventative care. It’s a young initiative, and a unique one, and I was proud to be a part of it.

The initiative was put together by my friend Kirk, who’s one of the more inspiring fellow post-baccs I’ve met so far. When he asked if I might be interested in helping out—especially given that there’s a healthy eating open forum coming up, and I might be a good person to participate—I said I’d be delighted. On Tuesday, I, along with a bunch of my post-bacc peers, trudged out into slush and snow banks to hand out fliers on street corners advertising the free health screening day. It was cold, and it was predictably hard to grab people’s attention (we had some Spanish speaking volunteers in the group, and their success was more robust than ours). Still, we managed to get fliers to a lot of passers by, and many of them seemed interested in coming to the next health screening, which is for diabetes (this week’s screening and education was for asthma). In spite of the fact that we were catching people as they marched to and from places they had to be, we managed to bring five or so people into the church for a screening and conversation with our M.D. That’s five people who are less likely to ignore or misread the signs of asthma as it’s starting out.

In short, it was very, very worth it.

Here are some shots of the church that shelters this wonderful community service:

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I really hope that projects like this one can be a big part of my life as a post-bacc. As I’ve said before, I think that becoming vegan gave me far more sensitivity and to human suffering than I had before, and charity and volunteer work is one expression of compassion. With any luck, this was only the first of many opportunities I’ll have to give back to my own community as I prepare to practice medicine.

When I came home that night, I felt thankful for many of my blessings. But given the chilly temperatures, I was feeling particularly thankful for

  1. Nourishing Food
  2. My pressure cooker

Most of my classes get out late this semester, and I’m finding that it’s pretty hard to prepare an inspiring dinner at 8 or 8:30pm when I get home. On Tuesday night, after an unusually long day (and much of it standing), I really wanted a soup or stew of some sort, but the prospect of standing and waiting by a simmering pot seemed fairly unlikely. Pressure cooker to the rescue. The following stew took me 15 minutes from start to finish (minus the time I spent bringing the pressure cooker to pressure), and it was absolutely tasty.

15 Minute Kale, Sweet Potato, and Black Bean Stew (serves 3-4)

2 medium yams, peeled and quartered
2 medium carrots, peeled and chopped
1 stalk celery
1/2 tsp ginger powder
1/2 tsp chili powder
1 tsp cinnamon
Vegetable broth
1 tbsp almond butter
1 cup cooked black beans (I used canned, but home cooked are great)
3 cups chopped kale
Salt and pepper to taste

1) Place yams, carrots, and celery in the pressure cooker and add enough broth to almost cover them (almost). Add the spices.

2) Cover the pressure cooker and bring it to pressure; cook on high pressure for about 10 minutes.

3) Let pressure release naturally or use the quick release method on your pressure cooker. Using an immersion blender, puree the mixture till it’s very smooth.

4) Stir in almond butter, black beans, and kale. The kale will quickly cook in the warm soup.

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Season to taste with salt and pepper, and serve!

There are two important variations on this recipe:

  • If you don’t have a pressure cooker, just follow step one, bring the broth to a boil, and simmer till veggies are tender. Then proceed with steps 3-4.
  • If you want to use dry black beans, go ahead, but then you’ll want to cook the whole thing for about 16-18 minutes and then release pressure.

I served mine with some of my new favorite kale chips and some celery sticks. I was way too tired to come up with better side dishes.

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Right now more than ever, let’s feel grateful for warm (and raw!) food, for shelter, and—if we’re lucky enough to have it—our access to health care.

If you’re in NYC and you’d like to get involved with the free community health screening project in conjunction with St. Luke’s, please shoot me an email at We need more volunteers, and since the project is in its grassroots phase, we’re really open to suggestions, involvement, and initiative. I’d love to tell you more about what’s involved!


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Categories: Uncategorized
Ingredients: Black Beans, Kale

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  1. Thanks for reminding us, in a winter where I am complaining frequently about the snow and cold weather, that we are lucky to have things like food and warm soup. Props to you for getting so involved so early in your studies! Great work.

  2. Your food always looks AMAZING! I have a lot of spinach right now, could I substitute it for the kale?

  3. I had an emergency appedectomy last year and was astounded by how much the procedure cost (a routine, common surgery!) We’re talking 5 figures. It really made me truly and deeply appreciate my insurance for the first time in my life. I’m an undergrad, so I’m still on my parent’s insurace. Paying for that out of pocket… I cannot even imagine. I am so, so, so thankful for my insurance.

    What a great initiative. I hope we get to hear more about outside-the-classroom experiences like these on your way to becoming an MD!

  4. Awesome, beautiful and scary photos – all that snow!!! 😉

    Great cause and love that you’re taking part. I’ve done many volunteer activities for homeless – it’s a passion of mine.

    Pressure cooker – dare I admit I’m still scared to try mine!?!?!?!?

  5. Beautiful initiative because it is so hard for so many to have and keep insurance and be able to have access to a doctor…

    The stew looks delicious and so fullfilling and the pictures are amazing!!! 🙂

    Have a great weekend!
    Deby 🙂

  6. How fulfilling to be a part of that. The health care system is so so broken. I have been without insurance for the better part of my life..and it was a disaster when my son had a serious foot issue that turned into a horrific cancer scare. To try to find a doctor who would even see us was just ridiculous and time consuming and from the time he had his first visit to the time he finally had surgery was almost a year. There are so many people who fall through the cracks.

    Your soup looks lovely!

  7. Can I just say that this looks DELICIOUS and loaded with orangey vitamins? I am probably going to have to make this asap, considering sweet potatoes are their own food group in my world.

    I CANNOT wait for spring to be here!! Let’s abolish winter, I am tired of the cold!

  8. What an amazing initiative! Sounds fabulous!

    Gosh, it’s strange to look at that snow when it’s currently too hot to even sleep here in Canberra, Australia! I’ll have to save this recipe for when we head back into winter 🙂

  9. Um, is Kirk almost done with his post-bacc? I know a Kirk in the post-bacc program, but he’s almost finished with it.

    Thanks for touching upon such an important issue. I volunteer in a public ER, where tons of homeless people come daily seeking shelter. Our government really needs to implement a better health insurance system that provides coverage for ALL people.

  10. beautiful pictures, and wonderful post. i love how your veganism crosses over into nearly every facet of your life. i definitely aspire to be more like you. i’m not completely vegan yet, but i do hope to be one day. your blog inspires and encourages me that not only can it be done, but it can be done compassionately and deliciously!

  11. I sympathize with Avery. I am also uninsured right now, albeit by choice. As I live in Massachusetts, where insurance is mandatory, I consider it an act of civil disobedience. I am refusing to support the “sickness care” insurance industry. (Let’s be honest about what it is, “health” insurance it ain’t.) The truth of the matter is that if I were to fork over $7000 a year for insurance, which is about the minimum I was quoted, I couldn’t afford my healthy lifestyle. Which is, of course, my real “health” insurance.
    Not to invalidate the very important work you and your colleagues are doing.

  12. What a wonderful, inspiring post and such a wonderful cause. It’s great that you got to participate in something so kind. The doctors office my nurse sister works for dedicates one day a week to providing out-patient surgeries to the uninsured, a pretty big sacrifice that the doctors are very passionate about doing and I really admire that.

    This recipe looks wonderful and something I’m going to try. It’s also making me consider a pressure cooker down the road. Thanks!

  13. Gena thank you for this post and I have for the 1st time in my entire life been forced to go without health insurance. Due to pre-existing conditions, self employment, and circumstances, I cannot GET insurance right now. I have been denied and turned down around every corner. The policy we did have…the rates went up to over 2k a months for a family of 3 and we couldnt afford it anymore. So our child has insurance but Scott and I don’t.

    It’s not just homeless people who are uninsured…even people who are trying to get insurance…get denied. Such a problem. But that’s not the point of your post.

    Which is awesome! Thank you for volunteering and being a bright, shining light!

    And your soup..looks awesome.. Anything that’s a one pot, 15 minute recipe…is wonderful!

  14. A beautiful post Gena.

    Now I think I need to get a pressure cooker. Black beans cooked from dry in 18 minutes????? Say what????? This gizmos not just good for busy students but heck, every family with two working parents should get one!

  15. I salute you for taking part in such a mission of compassion and I’m so touched to hear that such a thing exists. When we go up to Anchorage, I see that in certain places there’s a significant homeless population and it blows my mind how people can live in this frozen climate with no shelter!

    Soup looks and sounds delightful: amazing creativity for coming home that late (I would be _toast_!) I’ve never used a pressure cooker but it sounds like a great trick to get things done fast.

  16. What a remarkable initiative, Gena. I think you’re just the kind of person we all want to see in Med School and ultimately practicing. Compassion is in all that you do.

    I think I’ll try your stew recipe out this weekend. As you know, I have a pressure cooker because of you! LOL It looks delicious and I love the passive cooking of the kale in the soup post-puree!

  17. Would you be willing to do a pressure cooker tutorial? I just received a hand-me down from a friend, and I’m scared of it! 🙂 This stew looks absolutely amazing… I have it bookmarked in hopes of getting over my fear!

  18. As someone who is uninsured, it makes me happy to hear of steps being taken to help those without health care. It’s so important.

    Kale and butternut squash is such a warm and nourishing combination!

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