AT THE OPENING OF THE JOY WELLNESS CENTER, Annie Umbricht wears the slightly dazed smile of someone who’s living a moment long imagined. The Hopkins internist admires the large bright studio for yoga, tai chi, and other movement therapies, then peeks into an intimate space designed for meditation. This is the latest dimension of health care she has helped provide at the Shepherd’s Clinic, a primary care clinic for the uninsured “working poor” in the Homestead-Montebello area of northeast Baltimore.
An addictions medicine specialist at Johns Hopkins Bayview, Umbricht has volunteered at this clinic since 2002. Typically, she sees people with such chronic conditions as obesity, hypertension, and diabetes. “All of these disorders cause, and are exacerbated by, stressors, such as those related to socioeconomic hardship and previous trauma histories,” she says. “This is why it becomes extremely important to provide patients with a place where they can learn techniques to reduce stress.”
Last year, Umbricht and fellow volunteer Linda Lee, a Hopkins gastroenterologist, suggested turning an unused portion of the clinic building into a center where community members could learn strategies for balancing the physical, emotional, and spiritual aspects of their lives. Donations from foundations and individuals, including Umbricht’s family, made it happen. (The center is named after Umbricht’s late cousin, Joy Jaillet.) The internist is now helping to develop the center’s programs. Guests at the November opening of the 4,000-square-foot facility visited areas for acupuncture, massage, and counseling as well as a kitchen designed for healthy cooking classes.
“Hopefully we’ll be able to bring some peace to people so that they can start taking better care of their own health,” Umbricht says. “Now we need to get volunteer providers in alternative medicine to help show us the way.”
Compassion already flourishes at the Shepherd’s Clinic, where patients typically pay just an hour’s wage per office visit. Last year, the clinic handled roughly 4,000 patient visits with help from volunteer physicians, nurse practitioners, and physician assistants. Umbricht and Lee work beside health care volunteers from Union Memorial Hospital and University of Maryland Medical Center.
Lee, who directs the Integrative Medicine & Digestive Center at Hopkins, says she’s drawn to volunteering at the clinic because she can build relationships without watching the clock. “As doctors, we’re often too pressured for time to see all the contexts in which our patients live,” she says. “It’s important we understand the barriers that people have for getting health care along with the problems of paying for it.” In the new wellness center, Lee will present programs in digestive health, with a nutritionist on hand to provide food demonstrations. There are also plans to create a community vegetable garden.
Umbricht works a reduced schedule at Hopkins to allow time to volunteer at Shepherd’s Clinic on Tuesday afternoons and Wednesday evenings. The counseling she does on stress reduction is a focus of her own research as well. She recently received an NIH grant to study the effectiveness of topiramate in treating cocaine dependence in patients on methadone. In other studies, this anticonvulsant drug has decreased participants’ alcohol intake as well as helped with smoking cessation. Umbricht believes it may help alleviate anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder, conditions associated with impulsive, self-destructive behaviors.
Part of the goal for the wellness center, Umbricht says, is to help people reduce the anxiety that colors so much of their lives. Once they realize how a state of mental and physical repose actually feels, it will be easier for them to capture and hold onto it. “We are trying to create a place that people want to come back to,” Umbricht says. “When you have a health care environment of ‘you musts,’ you don’t go very far.”