Public Comment

Ode to the Berkeley Free Clinic

By Amelia Baurmann
Friday May 04, 2007

It is close to 10 years ago now that I sat in the waiting room of the Berkeley Free Clinic waiting for my interview. I had already submitted an essay stating my reasons for wanting to be a part of the medical collective there, and had carefully considered that it would mean training there every weekend, all weekend, for six months. I was ready for something in my life to make sense, and working as a waitress wasn’t quite getting me there. While I waited, I studied the posters on the walls, mostly various artists’ interpretations of the BFC dragon logo with their motto printed beneath it: “Healthcare for people, not profit.” “Sure, I can get behind that,” I thought. 

I had no idea at that time to what extent the BFC would shape my future, and how important the philosophy that drives it would become for me. 

The BFC gets a lot of foot traffic from the local homeless and uninsured community; people moving through seeking peer counseling, anonymous STD testing, referrals, or basic medical and dental care. Most folks from around here have heard of it and know about what a great community resource it is. What may not be as well known is that the clinic attracts a diverse population of volunteers as well, many of them with aspirations of becoming health care professionals someday. 

This explains the necessary interview process to become part of the BFC collective. Several people I knew at the time that I was applying couldn’t understand why anyone who wanted to commit that much time and energy, for FREE, would need to be interviewed. But the reality is that medical school is extremely competitive, and any bauble one can find to adorn her/his resume is invaluable. It really looks good on paper to have been a part of something as well-known and respected as the BFC. But the medical collective is protective of the integrity of the clinic’s philosophy, and anyone who wants to become a part of it has to be ready to turn the paradigm of modern, western medicine inside out. 

What does that mean exactly? First and foremost, it means that clients are treated with respect and not rushed through their appointments. Clients are seen as their own primary caregivers, with the clinic “medics” providing support, education and empowerment to help people help themselves. By design, the medics are laypeople, wearing street clothing and going by their first names. If they don’t know the answer to a client’s question, they say they don’t know, and they help the client find the answer, using the clinic’s library. It bucks the model of the health care professional holding all of the intellectual capital, making patients feel apologetic for taking up their precious time and often leaving their appointments with questions unanswered and issues unaddressed. 

All of this seems so intuitive, so basic. That was the impression that I had when I first began working and training at the clinic. Unfortunately, having worked by now in a variety of settings with professionals on all ends of the spectrum, from doctors to nurses to midwives and homeopaths, from small community clinics and birthing centers to large hospitals, it is clear to me how rare this approach to the provision of care is. The language of communication, equity, respect, education and empowerment certainly receives lip service within the health care community, and there are efforts by many to infiltrate the profession with these ideals. But there is no better time to integrate these fundamental concepts than at the beginning of one’s education, which is what the BFC is for many. 

Though I left the clinic years ago and am now pursuing a career as a nurse midwife, the Berkeley Free Clinic’s philosophy will always be at the heart of my practice. I am sure that I am one of many fledgling health care providers who thank the BFC for indelibly marking our minds and hearts with the true meaning of client-centered care. Writing this is one of many ways I hope to give back to the BFC for all that I learned there, and I encourage anyone reading this to offer your support in any way you can. You never know, it may alter the course of your life. 


Amelia Baurmann is a nursing student at UC San Francisco.