Serving with a purpose

Medical students gain real-life experiences volunteering at a clinic for Native American patients.


VCU School of Medicine student volunteers: Therese Weidenkopf, M1 (far left), Draya Mirebrahimi, M1 (second from left), Sarah Whitaker, M1 (second from right), Pratyusha Chalurali, M2 (far right)


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By Keith Brooks School of Medicine keith.brooks@vcuhealth.org

November 21, 2022

The Mattaponi Healing Eagle Clinic, located on the Upper Mattaponi tribal grounds in King William County, Va., provides free primary care services for Native American families in the area. The clinic began in 1999 to provide health services to members of the Upper Mattaponi tribe, which did not have federal recognition status until 2018. 

Open on the fourth Saturday of every month, the volunteer-run clinic is a trusted resource for a historically underserved community and an opportunity for VCU medical students to gain experience connecting with patients.

“We could not do any of this without help from the students,” said Diane Garrison, president of the clinic. 

Students in action 

Michael Doyel began volunteering on Native American reservations when he was an undergraduate student at the Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology. Now a second-year medical student at VCU School of Medicine, he regularly volunteers at the Mattaponi Healing Eagle Clinic and helps recruit other students to get involved. 

“Growing up, I knew that parts of the Midwest were notorious for how they handled the reservation system in the past,” Doyel said. “I knew there was a gap in a lot of health care services and wanted to help that patient population.” 

Doyel and other volunteers — mostly first-year and second-year medical and pharmacy students — perform patient intake, administer vaccines, fill prescriptions and conduct patient interviews. Interacting with patients in this setting allows him to build long-term relationships and trust within the community, Doyel said, a practice he wants to prioritize throughout his medical career. 

“It is just an incredible experience,” Doyel said. “I think it’s a really cool thing being able to give back to underrepresented communities.”

The physicians and nurse practitioners on site provide valuable feedback for Doyel and his peers as they hone their intake and interview skills, and they often include the student volunteers in discussions about treatment plans for patients. Native American adults are more likely to be diagnosed with chronic illnesses like obesity and diabetes than non-Hispanic white adults, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, and Garrison said interacting with patients at the clinic exposes students to those health disparities. 

“It’s good for the students to see and treat these issues,” Garrison said. “This will allow them to learn more about these conditions because diabetes and obesity run rampant in the Native American community.”  

Getting involved 

The clinic is open 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. on the fourth Saturday of every month. To donate items such as over-the-counter medications, baby diapers, wipes or medical supplies, contact Garrison at dgarrison8@cox.net. Students interested in volunteering can email Doyel at mheclinic@gmail.com