Dr. Emily Dow
Dr. Emily Dow assists patient Maria Lopez at UC Irvine Family Health Center in Santa Ana. Daniel A. Anderson / UCI

Ask Dr. Emily Dow why she decided to practice medicine, and the answer might surprise you.

Twenty years ago, she was teaching English as a Second Language to adults in Los Angeles when a middle-aged Latina student was stricken with chest pains during class. Dow wanted to call an ambulance to take her to a hospital, but the woman begged her not to: She couldn’t afford the ride. The student made it to the ER, but seeing her desperate situation helped motivate Dow to pursue a second career.

“I chose medicine to serve the neediest and work in an area where I’d make the most impact,” she says. “Healthcare is something all humans need.”

The associate clinical professor helps fill that need in community clinics and the classroom, where she inspires medical students to join her in treating the poor. Her dedication to healing the underserved earned her a 2008 Living Our Values Award, given annually by Chancellor Michael V. Drake to staff, faculty and students whose actions best embody UCI’s values of respect, intellectual curiosity, integrity, commitment, empathy, appreciation and fun.

Dow impresses her students as both soft-spoken “humble leader” and fearless woman, says UCI medical student Negin Agange. Dow practices family medicine in areas where physicians are few – from a high-crime neighborhood in South Central Los Angeles where she directed a community clinic, to Chiapas, Mexico, where she spends one month each year treating patients who live in extreme poverty.

“She gives to the community every day,” Agange says. “She teaches future doctors how we can make positive changes in the lives of others through our daily work.”

On a recent morning at the UC Irvine Family Health Center in Santa Ana, where Dow serves as assistant medical director, she helped an elderly woman into a wheelchair, gently admonishing her in Spanish for walking on a fractured ankle she’d treated the previous day. “When she came in yesterday her leg was swollen and bruised; she’d put heat on it instead of ice.”

It frustrates and worries Dow that patients often neglect themselves or delay seeing a doctor because they are poor or uninsured, especially if they suffer from conditions such as chronic diabetes or hypertension where early intervention can save lives. “The grinding poverty prevents people from seeking care when they should,” she says.

In Chiapas, where Dow works as a volunteer physician with Doctors of the World, most of her patients have never been to a doctor. “We see people who live on less than a dollar a day. They’re fortunate to have shoes,” she says. “We treat illnesses such as malaria, typhoid and hookworm not seen in the U.S. in decades.”

Dow often works with UCI family medicine residents who help provide healthcare to the poor in Chiapas. She also directs the student-run UC Irvine Outreach Clinics at the Village of Hope, which opened Nov. 1 at the Orange County Rescue Mission in Tustin. She and the students spend Saturday mornings caring for the uninsured.

“The students wanted to start a clinic of their own where they can treat patients – not just screen them for diseases,” she says. “They’re not only getting early clinical training, they’re seeing the plight of the poor and getting motivated to contribute to their care throughout their career.”

To encourage their efforts, Dow teaches a course for medical students called “Caring for the Underserved” that covers topics such as healthcare policy, health and human rights, and community advocacy. The real lesson, however, takes place when she helps students treat those who might otherwise go without care.

“Despite the frustrations, we can make a difference, however small, in the lives of patients,” Dow says. “When we see them rise above their situation, take charge of their lives and take better care of themselves, that’s the reward.”

Originally published in Vol.1, Iss. 2 of ZotZine