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Addressing Barriers to Health Care

One Woman's Mission to Improve the Lives of Utah's Refugees

When Anna Gallegos graduated from University of Utah’s Health Sciences LEAP program in Health Promotion & Education, she wanted to save the world. Her plan was simple if not ambitious: travel to the Amazon delta with 39 other graduates and supply health care to its inhabitants alongside an embedded American physician.

Anna Gallegos

While Anna chose not to uproot her life to continue her work in Peru, she soon discovered a new mission at Redwood Health Center among its sizable refugee population. For many, Redwood Health Center is their anchor in a new and strange world, offering 23 programs that include a full-service Spanish clinic and culturally conscious providers. In FY19, the clinic conducted more than 170,000 unique visits, many with patients who are members of Latinx, immigrant, and refugee communities. 

Patients would run to Anna's station at the front desk with cut fingers and signs of a heart attack or stroke. They were using the clinic as urgent care because they didn’t know where else to go. As time passed, signs of other barriers to care emerged. Patients would often miss appointments to focus on basic needs like housing and bills. Sometimes they’d be stranded after an appointment because they didn’t know how to get home.

The reality is, Utah’s 60,000 refugees—originating from more than 46 countries and speaking 90 languages—have encountered and overcome a host of issues before they even walk through the clinic doors: war, violence, trauma, and language barriers. They are a shining example of resilience.

“If providers can’t look at the full picture, all they see is a patient who keeps missing appointments or struggling to pay hospital bills,” Anna says. “What they won’t know is they’re vulnerable in ways other patients are not. They can’t focus on health when their basic needs aren’t being addressed.”

World Map

So she set to work creating the Refugee Services Coordinator position, a bridge between the refugees who seek out health care and the providers who offer it. One long year later, in December of 2017, the job was hers.

On any given day, Anna supports the care of up to 60 refugees at the health center by communicating with providers and case workers, coordinating with resettlement agencies, and training staff to provide personalized care. It’s a tall order—Anna’s learned how not to take on her clients’ stories so she can better help them. She focuses instead on the little things, like celebrating when they make appointments on time.

The struggles of her work, however great, are well worth it. Aden Batar, director of migration and refugee services at Catholic Community Services, calls Anna’s work invaluable. “If a client is late or misses an appointment and we’re not asking why, then we’re missing the point,” he says. “I can pick up the phone, call Redwood, and Anna will make sure their cultural needs are addressed.”

Anna Gallegos Standing Outside the Redwood Health Center