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April 16, 2018

Wheels of Care: St. Joseph’s Children’s Hospital’s Mobile Medical Clinic

By Tampa Bay Parenting

A Bus for All Patients: St. Joseph’s Children’s Hospital’s Mobile Medical Clinic brings care to those who need it the most. 

When Kate Kennedy drives up in “the bus” – St. Joseph’s Children’s Hospital’s Mobile Medical Clinic – she’s never quite sure what the day will bring.  

“We see people from every walk of life and every circumstance,” says Kennedy, St. Joseph’s Children’s Hospital Mobile Clinic Coordinator. “But the one thing they have in common is that they’re going through some sort of life transition that leaves them vulnerable and sometimes feeling a little lost.” 

Related: 10 Tips to Babyproof Your Home

Many of the families they see are new to the area and come to the clinic for the required physicals and immunizations to start school. Others may be refugees of war or weather – the mobile clinic helped many Puerto Rican families resettle after Hurricane Maria, and they have been a vital resource for some families fleeing unrest in Venezuela. Still others may have lived in Tampa their whole lives, but find themselves without health insurance for the first time after a layoff or a rough patch.  

For one toddler in Wimauma, the mobile clinic was a stabilizing force at just the right time. At almost 2 years old, he could neither walk nor talk, and he had been brought in by his single mother, who spoke a dialect of her native Guatemala. She had no transportation and wore the sweat-stained clothes she had worn to pick tomatoes all day. The mother, who still had dirt under her fingernails from the fields, was desperately worried about her son and why he wasn’t developing normally. 

On board the bus, they found grace—and a nurse practitioner who gave the baby a free physical, immunizations, food and toiletries and, most importantly, a developmental screening. A follow up visit with a St Joseph’s Children’s Hospital physician led to physical, occupational and speech therapy. When the boy returned to the mobile bus two months later, he was kicking a ball and starting to speak for the very first time.  

“Every barrier to care is what they were facing to get him that health care he needed,” says Kennedy. “I wish we could have given that family the world.” 

It’s a success story that generous hospital donors could not have anticipated when they developed a plan to improve lagging immunization rates in Hillsborough County in 2003. The bus began making rounds and administering shots in 2004, and the Children’s Board of Hillsborough County got involved and helped set up a comprehensive clinic inside the bus.

Related: The Power of Giving: St. Joseph’s Women’s Group Crosses $1 million mark

Today, St. Joseph’s Children’s Hospital has a new 40-foot bus (a donation from the Philanthropic Women of St. Joseph’s) visits eight locations monthly and is set up like a pediatrician’s office, with two exam rooms and a pharmacy-grade refrigerator for vaccines. While the seven bus employees are overseen by St. Joseph’s Children’s Hospital, the program is grant-funded through the Children’s Board and the Florida Association of Free and Charitable Clinics. Patients receive physicals, vaccinations, hearing and vision screens, and free eyeglasses and free eye exams through a partnership with Preserve Vision Florida. A clinical social worker helps assess housing and file for insurance and other social needs.  

Since the program began in 2004: 

10,278 children seen
7,483 physical exams conducted
21,038 vaccines administered
4,383 hearing screenings conducted (340 children identified with hearing concerns)
2,905 developmental screenings conducted (1,120 identified with developmental concerns)

The next step is the addition of mental health screenings for adolescents. “Mental health is a big need,” Kennedy says. Many of the children have experienced unprecedented amounts of turmoil, but even those in relatively stable homes struggle with mental health problems. What caregivers may interpret as mere teenage moodiness may be a cover for more serious issues like depression.  

“There are a lot of holes in the safety net,” Kennedy notes. Some are fortuitously filled by St. Joseph’s Children’s Hospital specialists who donate their time and resources to see some mobile clinic patients who don’t have other options. Toy donations to the hospital sometimes find their way into the eager hands of the bus patients, and many times, Kennedy and her fellow bus-staffers have put together their own food pantry into which they can dip for the neediest patients.  

“They are grateful for every little thing,” Kennedy says. “It’s very humbling.” 

Related: Expert tips to take care of your child’s heart

To learn more about the Mobile Medical Clinic and for a full list of services and locations, visit https://baycare.org/sjch/services/childrens-health/related-articles/mobile-medical-clinic. 

St. Joseph's Children's Hospital Mobile Medical Clinic

Who’s on Board?  
A board certified nurse practitioner, two registered nurses, an early childhood specialist, a Children’s Wellness & Safety Specialist, a care coordinator, a clinical social worker, and a team of dedicated volunteer healthcare providers, many of whom are bilingual in English and Spanish. 

What’s offered?
Well Child Exams (school physicals), Immunizations and Immunization Record Checks, Developmental Screens, Hearing Screens, Vision Screens, and Health and Safety Education. NO sports or camp physicals, treatment of illness, medication or prescriptions. 

Who is eligible?
Children must be 18 years old or younger and have Medicaid, no health insurance or be Native American or Alaskan Native. They cannot see children who have Florida KidCare or private health insurance. 

How much does it cost?
On “The Bus,” everything is FREE for families. 

By Anu Varma Panchal 

Originally published in the April 2018 issue of Tampa Bay Parenting Magazine.

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