Cotati Jewish free clinic aids those who fall between cracks

On a recent Thursday night, however, the Jewish Community Free Clinic of Sonoma County provides Sensi's family with medical care, counseling, referrals for other free services, and even donated toys and books to take home along with a vaporizer to help the baby breathe.

Opened in October and housed in a converted Lions Clubhouse in downtown Cotati, the weekly clinic is the brainchild of Dr. Robin Lowitz. The Sebastopol family practitioner donates her time to see clinic patients every Thursday night and keeps the clinic and its volunteers going.

Lowitz conceived the clinic as a project of tikkun olam, repairing the world. It is an effort designed as much to help patients in need of free care as it is to rejuvenate health-care providers eager to practice free from the constraints of today's medical system.

Fed up with the pace and quality of managed-care medicine, many Sonoma County physicians have quit practicing medicine, according to Lowitz. And an increasing number of people are doing without health care.

Lowitz first volunteered in a free Berkeley clinic when she was an undergraduate studying history. In free clinics, she says, "You get to see physicians practicing medicine for all the right reasons, with the best of intentions."

Since she became a doctor, Lowitz has continued to work in free clinics, most housed in churches. "After a while, you start to wonder — why don't we as a Jewish community do this sort of thing?" she says.

In August 2000, during a Saturday morning Shabbat service at Santa Rosa's Congregation Beth Ami, the petite doctor with short strawberry-blonde hair stood up and announced her intention to start a free medical clinic — as far as she knows the only free Jewish medical clinic in the United States. About 10 congregants, many elders and some Holocaust survivors, immediately signed up to help.

"The Jewish community is really eager for a tikkun olam project that they can really get involved in and make an impact," Lowitz says. "We have so much talent in the Jewish community. We have so many people who want to help."

On Thursday nights, 10 to 20 doctors, nurses, physician assistants, translators, body workers and receptionists volunteer to help 20 or so patients. Hebrew-school students from Cotati's Congregation Ner Shalom entertain waiting children, sometimes including Lowitz's own 3-year-old son. Most but not all of the volunteers are Jewish, about half of them are unaffiliated, Lowitz says.

Roberta Godbe, a Sebastopol psychotherapist and social worker, recently volunteered for the first time. A single mother and a member of Santa Rosa's Congregation Shomrei Torah, she has been trying to clear her schedule to work in the clinic for months.

"This is just a nice way I can give something back to the community," she says. "It's so nice where there's no money. You're just giving because it feels good to give. I'm just so happy to be here."

Godbe introduces herself to Sensi and his family. "Separate from the medical care here, what else are you needing?" Godbe asks softly so others in the waiting area can't hear. Sensi laughs. "Money," he shouts.

Godbe advises Sensi to return to school to get his electrician's license. Later, she advises another patient to seek counseling. The psychologist leaves her volunteer shift grateful for the opportunity to have helped.

Patients generally come to the clinic complaining of coughs, colds, ear infections, depression, stomachaches, sprains, urinary-tract infections, migraine headaches and other routine conditions. But clinic doctors also pick up more serious diseases — such as cancer, hepatitis and HIV — that Lowitz says would otherwise go undiagnosed.

Many clinic patients suffer physical strains from their labor. Every other week, Robin Birdfeather does hands-on work in a converted clinic closet to help relieve patients' aches.

About 85 percent of the clinic's patients are Latino farm workers, day laborers and their families. Also using the clinic are Ethiopians from Eritrea who live in Santa Rosa's Apple Valley and are seeking political asylum. Occasionally a Jewish patient, like Maya Davidowitz, a 14-year-old Israeli visitor suffering the other night from a cough and an ongoing migraine, shows up.

Maya's friend, Steve Einstein of Sebastopol, brought her in for care. A nurse, Einstein helped set up the clinic and plans to volunteer there. With donated help, the clubhouse was remodeled to create a reception area, waiting room, triage room (actually a kitchen with the stove still in place), an examination room, a pediatric-exam room and a room for alternative health care.

"To see the way this place has been transformed, it's fabulous," Einstein says. "This free clinic spoke to me because the driving force was coming from the Jewish community. It's a way to channel my need to contribute in a Jewish environment."

Since August 2000, clinic supporters have raised about $30,000 to get the program going. For now, the clinic is open only one night a week because the clubhouse is booked at other times. Lowitz hopes to find another building so clinic hours can expand.

"There's so much need that if we were to open four days a week," she says, "I have no doubt we'd be full. My vision down the road is that we'll hopefully be able to obtain a grant, maybe a benefactor or two, maybe a building. Stranger things have happened, and they do happen."