Zuhayr Shaikh's growing network of interpreters, physicians, nurses and other health professionals is helping provide services to free clinics across Virginia. (Courtesy photo)

A VCU grad is organizing volunteers to help meet free clinic needs across Virginia

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Virginia Commonwealth University alumnus Zuhayr Shaikh wanted to make a difference during his time in isolation. An email from a free clinic in his hometown provided an opportunity.

Mother of Mercy Free Medical Clinics in Manassas, Virginia, was transitioning to telehealth in mid-March after Gov. Ralph Northam issued a stay-at-home order. The organization sent out a plea for interpreters.

Shaikh knew people who were stuck at home and had the skills to provide interpretative services so he reached out to the clinic and offered to help. Soon, Shaikh had a spreadsheet with dozens of names. He connected them with the clinic. 

Shaikh, who graduated last week with a degree in biology from the College of Humanities and Sciences, is interested in helping underserved populations and will enroll at the University of Virginia School of Medicine in the fall. He has volunteered at a free clinic in Richmond as well as the one in Manassas.

“I just wanted to help out and was looking for an opportunity,” Shaikh said.

He was amazed at the number of people who wanted to volunteer. Mother of Mercy only needed five interpreters but his list grew to over a hundred names. Many of the interpreters speak Spanish, but Shaikh also is hearing from volunteers willing to serve as interpreters for other languages commonly spoken in Virginia, including Chinese, Arabic, Vietnamese, Tagalog, French, Persian, Urdu and Hindi. 

“It has been phenomenal,” Shaikh said. “It’s a whole bunch of people who care and want to help out the community.” 

Shaikh figured other free clinics across the state would be going to telehealth during the pandemic as well. He reached out to Michelle Taylor at the Virginia Association of Free and Charitable Clinics. The organization serves as a hub for free clinics across the state, and many were inquiring about telehealth. 

Shaikh informed Taylor about the huge pool of candidates who were available to be interpreters. The organization jumped at the opportunity, and clinics around the state have begun tapping into the network Shaikh helped create.

Free clinics have always considered telehealth to be a viable way to expand coverage, but the underfunded clinics never had the time or resources. Before the pandemic, only a couple of clinics offered telehealth but that has grown since the crisis started, according to Taylor.

“I have told Zuhayr [Shaikh] from the beginning that a silver lining to the pandemic is getting the clinics to use telehealth,” Taylor said. “Before COVID-19, they were so busy on a daily basis they hadn’t really started to work with telehealth. This pandemic has forced the clinics to explore outside of the box to reach patients.”

It’s a whole bunch of people who care and want to help out the community.

For many patients who visit a free clinic, transportation and child care can be a problem. Telehealth removes those barriers, and Shaikh has worked with Taylor to expand the network of people who are willing to volunteer. Soon, free clinics across the state will have access to physicians, nurses, mental health professionals, dietitians and social workers through telehealth.

Taylor believes telemedicine is here to stay within the free clinic community, and Shaikh played an important role. 

“Zuhayr has come into our lives at the perfect time,” she said. “He has bolstered our volunteers, taken on the task of matching volunteers to clinics, and reaching out to other associations to join forces.  He has been the one to truly move this project along.”

Besides the telehealth project, Shaikh has been helping during the pandemic in other ways. He participated in a design exercise with several other VCU students that helped lead to VCU Health System’s new method to sterilize used N95 masks

Shaikh has found a lot of satisfaction volunteering during his time at home. He never sought any personal accolades, but said the main benefit has been the contacts he has gained. The work has opened many doors and brought him into potentially working on other cutting-edge efforts.

“I can really see myself doing this type of innovation work in the future,” Shaikh said.

Learn more about Shaikh's network and sign up to volunteer.