When a group of medical students – most from UC Irvine – first tried to establish a free healthcare clinic in Santa Ana, they got a hard lesson in the challenges of helping the needy.

After conducting an extensive needs assessment and months of planning, the students were ready to open the clinic’s doors – only to have the site they’d chosen become unavailable at the last minute. Then another site fell through, but still they persevered, eventually opening the UC Irvine Outreach Clinic in November 2008.

“They never lost hope or courage and kept sight of their goal of bringing healthcare to the underserved,” says Dr. Emily Dow, the clinic’s medical director. “It’s their passion, teamwork and unflagging enthusiasm for what they believe in that has made this clinic a success.”

The students – tomorrow’s doctors, nurses and healthcare professionals – spend Saturday mornings at the clinic treating people with very low incomes who don’t qualify for government programs. The facility offers primary care, preventive medicine, laboratory testing, medication and referral services. It’s located at the Hurtt Family Health Clinic, part of the Orange County Rescue Mission’s Village of Hope at the former Marine Corps Air Station in Tustin.

“This is an amazing opportunity to learn and help care for the people who need it most,” says Charitha Reddy, a third-year medical student. “We’re learning what it means to be compassionate doctors and what it takes to provide proper care and referrals for the most needy patients and families.”

Because of their commitment, Reddy and 12 other students who established the clinic received the 2009 Living Our Values student team award.

“It’s the respect for all human beings and empathy for those less fortunate than themselves that are the fundamental values and driving force behind the students involved in this project,” Dow wrote in her nomination letter.

The students receive thorough training in clinic management and serve under the direction of UCI faculty physicians, led by Dow and Dr. Alberto Manetta, director of the UCI School of Medicine’s Office of Diversity & Community Engagement.

“By learning the importance of collaborating with other health professionals and community partners, our hope is that the students will continue to make positive contributions to underserved populations,” Dow says.

The UC Irvine Outreach Clinic is an extension of a 10-year student project called Clínica Cariño, a monthly clinic held in partnership with Loaves & Fishes Soup Kitchen in Santa Ana. Financial and faculty support from the School of Medicine and private donors has permitted the expansion of operations.

Students hope to eventually add locations, increase hours of availability, and provide dental and eye care. (The clinic recently began offering free mental health services, under the guidance of UCI psychiatrists.)

“With so many uninsured patients, it’s important that we take individual responsibility for the health of our communities,” says third-year medical student Shannon Toohey. “By donating a little bit of time, we can make an enormous difference in the lives of others, which is a pretty small contribution for such a large outcome.”

2009 Living Our Values student team award recipients: Negin Agange, Steven R. Chan, Borna Dabiri, Samia Ghaffar, Glenn Robert Gookin, Caroline King, Jacqueline King, Jody Lin, Jennifer Nicole Manss, Charitha D. Reddy, Karina Inez Salazar, Bradley Lynn Stoker and Shannon Toohey.