Thursday, May 13, 2021
May 13, 2021

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Free Clinic of Southwest Washington employee helps Latino community navigate health care

Patient care coordinator says clients say, ‘We are almost like family’

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Daniel Salazar Mollinedo, patient care coordinator at the Free Clinic of Southwest Washington, walks through the front door of the building after putting his mask on.
Daniel Salazar Mollinedo, patient care coordinator at the Free Clinic of Southwest Washington, walks through the front door of the building after putting his mask on. (Amanda Cowan/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

A Year of COVID

Editor’s note: Daniel Salazar Mollinedo, 21, is a patient care coordinator at the Free Clinic of Southwest Washington, which serves the local uninsured and under-insured. He also volunteered at the Free Clinic when he was younger. Salazar Mollinedo joined the clinic in his role last year, and has helped coordinate care for patients during the COVID-19 pandemic. The following is an oral history, told from Salazar Mollinedo’s perspective, about how he is using his life experience to help others navigate health care.

Ever since I can remember, I’ve wanted to become a physician. I’ve always had an interest in medicine. One thing that drew me specifically to the Free Clinic was that my mom was uninsured. I’ve had a lot of experience with free clinics already, just helping her with her medical visits. I feel like the system in America is very complicated. For a time, it felt like a mystery to me, and I wanted to do something to help my mom and understand medicine in general. I started to volunteer here again as a Spanish interpreter, and it was during the pandemic. They were looking for someone, and I was extremely grateful to take on the position.


I’m originally from Guatemala, and Spanish is my first language. I grew up speaking Spanish. We moved to the States when I was 7. I understand the culture and a lot of the struggles that our Latino community goes through. Knowing where they are coming from and being able to empathize has helped me in this career.

My previous job was in the emergency room. I really got to learn a lot about medicine, but I really didn’t get to interact as much with the patients. For me, this job really provided me the opportunity to give back, and I feel like I can empathize with the patients because I have a lot of family that has gone through the same experience they have. When someone’s first language isn’t English, I can tell when someone didn’t understand anything the doctor said and I can go back and talk to them in a way that is more understandable.

That’s the most rewarding thing for me, just giving back to the community. Eventually, I’d like to do global medicine where you can travel to different parts of the world and serve people that don’t have all the resources. That’s a dream job – to go back to my country and serve my people.


One of the most challenging parts of this job is just realizing how broken our health care system is. A lot of our patients are scared to seek medical treatment because they might have misconceptions that they might get in trouble with the government. There’s a lot of mistrust and disinformation out there. I’ve had patients tell me they didn’t want to go to the emergency room for financial reasons. There’s a lot of really sad stories with patients who do not have confidence in the health care system.


Mental health is really connected with our physical health. A lot of the patients who come here don’t realize that one of the reasons their diabetes is so out of control is that they’ve had difficulty managing their stress levels. One of the ways that fear manifests is that many of them don’t want to come to the clinic or some of them don’t want to come to the clinic because they might think they are going to get COVID or they don’t know what care we are going to offer.

Some nights, I go home thinking about a patient that maybe we weren’t able to get the right medication for because of their documentation status. It makes me sad, because I see that person as almost a family member because I come from that background. We do our best to provide them with the resources, but sometimes we don’t have it all. That part has affected me. I have a good support system. I go to church. I pray for this community, our patients. That’s one of the ways I’ve dealt with the pandemic in general, having a good support with my family and my church.


We’re seeing more patients now, after the pandemic started. We’re seeing a lot of patients who were tied down to the insurance their job provided, and now we are kind of the backup or their last resort. We’ve seen that for patients that are undocumented even; and for our documented population, they don’t have anything to fall back on. They don’t qualify for Medicaid or Medicare. We really are their last hope, in a way. Sometimes it feels a little discouraging. I wish we had more resources for these people.


A dream of mine would be that our state or our county would have some sort of universal health care for all walks of life, for all patients, regardless of their immigration status. I hope that happens someday and that patients aren’t afraid of seeking medical care based solely on where they are from.


I talk to my mom about my job, and my older sister is an ICU nurse in a COVID unit, so she really understands the struggle. She sees the misinformation and having a lack of resources for the underserved community. She firsthand gets to see that because a lot of the patients who go into the COVID unit are from the BIPOC community. She’s been a good sounding board for me in terms of our experiences. You can tell a patient, “It’s really important that you social distance and wear a mask,” but until you go to one of these places where people are in very critical condition, it’s hard to know how serious the situation is.


I feel most fulfilled when we have a patient who has been lost to care, and we can help them. Maybe they haven’t received treatment for several years out of fear of seeking medical care. They come to the clinic and their labs are out of whack and we take the time to sit with them and talk about a comprehensive plan for them.

We are going to start them on a new medication. We get them set up with a nutrition educator and schedule a follow-up with an ophthalmologist. You can see the hope in their eyes. Some patients have said, “We are almost like family.” They never expected someone to care as much as we do for them.