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Holistic health care goes to school

For many uninsured families in Phoenix, getting sick raises a question with few good answers. Go to the doctor, and they’ll likely face bills they can’t pay. Wait it out, and they might end up in the emergency room. For some, legal status keeps them from seeking help at all. Now, one school district may have found a cure, using a different type of medicine.

At first blush, Arthur M. Hamilton Elementary is typical of schools in Phoenix’s poorer neighborhoods . It’s small, about 400 students, who range from Head Start to eighth grade. It serves mostly minority kids, many from the nearby housing projects, and almost all with household incomes well below the poverty line.

But Hamilton is breaking the mold. This is the home of a naturopathic clinic, which brings free healthcare to all 2,000 students in the Murphy district and their families.

Medical director Dr. Jan Highfield said the clinic has been serving the four schools in the district for 11 years. It’s run by the Southwest College of Naturopathic Medicine and Health Sciences and funded by various grants. It’s also a teaching clinic, helping students learn how to treat various ailments.  

“We do see a lot of diabetes, obesity, asthma in the school, learning disabilities, ADD,” Highfield said. “But we’re well versed at approaching all those from the naturopathic standpoint.”

It’s a good fit, she believes, because many of these families are already comfortable with naturopathy, even if they’ve never used the word. By definition, it takes a more natural approach than traditional medicine.

As in “Look at the whole person, the whole case,” Highfield said. “Use the least, best, most efficacious treatment.”

In other words, help bodies heal themselves, without so much mass-produced pharmaceuticals. This can be controversial in the more traditional medical community, but not here.

Hamilton Principal Geovanni Orozco said this approach to health often mirrors treatments families have tried in their native countries.

“And so when the idea of naturopathic medicine came in, it started fitting in with what they already had in mind,” Orozco said.

That synergy has a big impact. Without this clinic, Orozco said, many families in his district wouldn’t seek medical care except in the most extreme circumstances. Some would be afraid of having their immigration status revealed, while others wouldn’t feel comfortable around a doctor they don’t know.

Instead, Orozco said this clinic gives them a place to feel at home. It handles about 1,800 visits a year.      

“And I can share with you, and I can tell you, from the communities and kids that I work with, that this right here is not taken for granted,” Orozco said.

“The patients are grateful, compliant and want to be healthy, because, you know, when they’re healthy, their families do better. When their families do better, society does better,” Highfield agreed. “You know, we’re growing communities.”

Yolanda Damian, who works at Hamilton’s front desk, has watched this growth for years.

“I have seen a lot of people come in a lot and new people,” Damian said, “and so it’s like ‘Oh, okay, so it’s getting kind of big for the community.’”

And it’s been a big deal for Damian’s family. Her father is a diabetic, and he used the clinic until Medicare recently kicked in. Damian and her 8-year-old daughter have been there, too, even though they have insurance.

Damian says it can take a month to see her doctor, while she can just walk into the clinic. Besides, she likes its holistic aspect. There, she learns how to get better and stay that way.

“And they show you how to do exercise, and they tell you how many minutes to take to do exercise, and eat healthier,” she said.

When asked if there’s anything else people should know about the naturopathy, Damian paused and thought for a few beats before answering.

“They’re excellent,” she said, finally. “And I’m happy that they’re in this school, actually, helping us and helping the kids here in the community, too.”

The clinic is more than just popular, she added. For many in the district, it’s the only good option they have for healthcare.