Navigating the Roads of Pittsburgh During a Pandemic

It is my first day driving to my host site’s COVID-19 testing location, and I hope I do not end up lost on the wrong side of Pittsburgh’s many rivers again. With Google Maps as my lifeline to navigating the city, I finally pull into a vacant lot and anxiously wait for others to arrive. Five minutes later, a 32-foot medical mobile unit, a large UPS-truck-like vehicle, covered in stock photos and “Squirrel Hill Health Center” rumbles into the parking lot. I am in the right place.

Usually, the medical mobile unit provides primary care services to eight different locations throughout the county, and I would be fulfilling case management services for these patients. In response to the pandemic, however, we are using the mobile unit to provide daily, free COVID-19 testing and vaccination clinics. My role includes registering and checking-in the hundreds of patients we serve each day.

During a busy testing day, I was alone at the registration table as a woman struggled to read her
appointment number. She apologized and said her English was not good. She spoke Spanish earlier on the phone as she waited in line, so I used my broken Spanish from grade school to reassure her and ask for her birthday. Though initially confused by the code switch, she responded in Spanish with a bit of cheer in her voice. There are new obstacles every day at our mobile clinic, and I am learning to continually adapt to the patients and environment to ensure quality care. Although I was nervous about my lack of Spanish proficiency, my attempts to speak it was a small gesture I could use in these brief interactions to connect with and ease the patient.

As I learn how to overcome barriers to care, such as language, I now see how location and transportation offer large obstacles I had not previously considered. People come to our clinics by car, bus, rideshare services, bike, and even on foot. They wait in long lines in the heat and now the snow for the services we are providing. While interacting with these people, I am struck by their stories and how thankful they are for our mobile clinic. Although the pandemic significantly changed my role at my host site, I can still clearly see how crucial the mobile unit is for providing health services to people who cannot get to the health center. Potentially getting lost on the trip to that day’s location or feeling unsure speaking basic Spanish are insignificant when we can serve so many people throughout Pittsburgh by bringing services to them.

This post was written by Lily Robinson.

Lily serves at Squirrel Hill Health Center as a Patient Navigator.