Health care challenges increase after Harvey

HOUSTON — Sandra Calderon and her kids were not feeling well.

The Houston Chronicle reports it was nearly a year after Hurricane Harvey hit, particularly devastating the east side of Houston where she lived, and she felt her health crumbling. Calderon and her three kids — ages 13, 11 and 10 — were experiencing chronic headaches. Her allergies worsened. She started getting hot flashes. The 34-year-old single mother hadn’t had her period in a year.

Calderon, who was born in Fort Worth but lived in Mexico until 13 years ago, hadn’t seen a doctor in two years. She doesn’t have insurance. She normally works in the service industry, but is currently unemployed. Her options seemed nonexistent.

While picking up donated backpacks for her kids at her church, Christian Tabernacle on Wallisville Road, she came across United Health Partners, which is trying to fill health care needs in northeast Houston,

“That’s when I met Ania (Bravo) and I confided in her that I haven’t been feeling well,” Calderon said in Spanish through an interpreter.

Bravo, a medical assistant at the nonprofit health clinic, told Calderon to come to their clinic located on the East Freeway for a checkup and pap smear exam.

“I said, ‘I don’t have any money,’ and she said, ‘It’s ok, we can cover the costs. Just come get an exam,'” Calderon said, her voice breaking as tears streamed down her cheeks. “In such a short time, this clinic has really taken care of me.”

Calderon received a five-point blood test and pap smear exam at UHP, free of charge. She also ended up discovering the verdict on her headache and those of her children: mold in the air ducts and walls of her trailer home, which grew after the trailer flooded during Harvey.

Calderon is one of over 860 patients UHP, founded in 2015 by Bernice Koko, has provided with health services for little to no cost since it opened its second clinic in northeast Houston in June (the first is located northwest). The largely low-income, minority area was in dire need of such a clinic, especially with residents’ increased health issues after Harvey.

And with the nearest health services — low-income or not — located at least 10 miles away, UHP is in the middle of what some community members feel to be a medical desert. But being the sole health care provider in the community has proved to be a double-edged sword, with the clinic struggling to find enough funding and resources to keep up with the demand in the area.

“[Koko] began to do a pop-up shop with a local church [Casa de Amor y Restauracion] in December of last year, and out of that clinic she saw 275 patients over three months,” said Patrina Pelton-Smith, a nonprofit business consultant. “That’s when we realized there’s more of a need here than we anticipated.”

Koko founded UHP with the goal of providing underprivileged populations access to proper health care and education — a challenge she’s experienced firsthand.

Koko was three months pregnant in 2004 when she arrived in Houston from the Ivory Coast. The expecting mother struggled to keep up with her checkups, especially when her husband — a member of the U.S. military — was on duty.

“I was living on Bissonnet, I had to drive all the way to Riverside and take three buses,” she said, her voice cracking. “I would get lost on the bus, I didn’t know the city, I didn’t speak any English.”

A few years and a masters’ degree in health care management later, Koko met another expecting mother, five months into her pregnancy, who had never seen a doctor “because she didn’t know where to go.”

“I started with health care education on how to access resources, but I realized that even though clinics say they are low-income, they’re not — they just give you prices,” Koko said.

In addition to being accommodating to low-income patients, though, Koko’s clinics seek to make her majority-minority patients feel a little more at ease with a multilingual, diverse employees hailing from countries like Cuba, Venezuela, Cameroon, Nigeria and the Ivory Coast.

The first UHP clinic opened on Antoine Drive in 2016, which the community mainly used for school vaccinations. (For six or seven vaccines, Koko never charges more than $60.)

The northeast clinic, located on the East Freeway, is a different — and much worse — story, because of health problems patients have been facing as a result of Hurricane Harvey.

The exposure to dirty water has caused a high number of skin infections among her patients. Many have had spikes in their blood pressure from the trauma and stress of the recovery process. And because of food affordability issues, Koko said there has been more diabetes and cholesterol issues.

At her revenue-based northwest clinic, Koko operated on a lean budget of just over $100,000. But her budget ballooned to $467,000 with the opening of the new northeast clinic. She and her staff of five are struggling to find funding to keep the clinic operating. So far, it has received about $80,000 in donations from local churches and organizations, and expects to bring in about $100,000 in revenue — leaving about $200,000 left to raise, or else they face fewer days of operation, or even a complete shutdown.

“We’re already turning away a lot of patients because we don’t have a doctor on Tuesdays and Thursdays,” Koko said. “The need is there because of Harvey.”

The Houston Chronicle