On Faith

They treat the poor

March 14, 2011 

  • The Mariam Clinic is open from 1 to 5 p.m. Sundays, at the offices of Dr. Mohammad Baloch, 3215 Blue Ridge Road. For appointments, call 824-4672. To volunteer, call Shalini Rehan at 332-0834.

  • Founders of the Mariam Clinic searched for a strong female role model when they first opened. The name Mariam resonated with different faith traditions.

    Jews look up to the biblical Miriam, Moses' sister.

    Christians venerate Mary, the mother of Jesus.

    Muslims refer to Mary as Mariam or Maryam Umm Isa (Mary, the mother of Jesus). The name appears in the Quran more often than in the New Testament.

— After he developed diabetes last year, El Houssain Abdous, a recent immigrant from Morocco, worried that he might not be able to afford the kind of medical care he needed.

Fortunately, his son, Noureddine Abdous, found out about a free medical clinic that serves uninsured working people and that would provide him an Arabic-language translator.

Raleigh's Mariam Clinic, now in its fourth year, is a little-known doctor's office that offers primary medical care to low-income, uninsured working families in Wake and Durham counties.

Unlike Raleigh's two other free medical clinics, Mariam was founded by Muslim doctors who wanted to give back to the community. These doctors, who volunteer their services, provide a glimpse of a segment of the Muslim population that sometimes is overlooked. As the U.S. Congress is holding hearings on the radicalization of American Muslims, these doctors offer an example of a different type of radicalization - the kind that helps society's poorest.

"A big part of Islam is the idea of giving back," said Dr. Sumera Hayat, a Duke University Medical Center family physician and the founder of the Mariam Clinic. "It drives my passion."

In 2004, while Hayat was working on a master's degree in public health, she began to conceive of a free clinic as a way to help immigrant Muslim women overcome language and cultural barriers that prevented them from getting mammograms or Pap smears. With the help of Dr. Mohammad Baloch, a family physician who offered the use of his practice on Blue Ridge Road, the clinic quietly opened in 2007. It has seen more than 1,000 patients since then.

A diversity of needs

But the doctors soon discovered that the community's needs were not limited to Muslim women. Nor were they limited to Muslims. Today, the clinic serves men, such as Abdous, and a growing group of non-Muslims, who make up 60 percent of its patient base.

"It's much better here than in Morocco," said Noureddine Abdous, translating for his father. "There, they don't give you medical care if you don't have insurance or cash."

The clinic has a core group of 11 doctors, including a gynecologist and a psychiatrist. But it needs more doctors, nurses and other medical technicians if it is to continue to serve the growing number of uninsured.

On Sunday, a dozen volunteers, including a handful of Muslim women wearing veils, checked in, weighed and took blood pressure readings from a dozen patients. Two Jamaican immigrants and a couple of African-American women sat in the waiting room.

The clinic sees itself as an interfaith endeavor. Not all its volunteers are Muslim, and it would like to build a stable of physicians of different faiths.

The idea, said Dr. Ghulam Shaikh, an internist who volunteers at the clinic, is to lower barriers and make people comfortable enough to discuss their medical needs.

"Our biggest strength is our diversity," said Shaikh, a native of Pakistan. "People feel very comfortable here. They're not estranged."

Cost: $75 per patient

Jerry Mikell, the board chairman of the Mariam Clinic, said it costs the organization about $75 to see each patient. That's far less than what it costs hospitals to treat people in the emergency room. And that, in turn, keeps premiums lower for those who have insurance. "It's beneficial to the public," Mikell said.

Just last week, the clinic treated a 64-year-old Vietnamese immigrant who had lost vision in one eye because of diabetes. Doctors were able to refer her to an ophthalmologist and give her prescriptions for drugs she could by at Walmart or Target for $4.

The clinic asks for a minimal donation of $10 per visit, but it needs to build a bigger donation base if it wants to expand and open three or four days a week, Mikell said.

Dr. Serina Floyd, a Duke University gynecologist who volunteers at the clinic, said her patients are so grateful that she can't help but treat them.

"That's what keeps me coming back," she said.

yonat.shimron@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4891

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