Lowering language barriers to make health care a safe haven

It’s May 2018, it’s morning and Jessica Zimmer is riding on a train in Valparaiso, Chile.

Zimmer — a pre-med biology and Spanish double major at Ohio State — is traveling to Consultorio, Esperanza, a government medical clinic in the hills of Valparaiso that treats patients from lower income families.

During the train commute, she isn’t staring into her phone. Zimmer is studying flashcards she made to hone her fluency in Spanish medical terminology.

It’s a critical exercise because for the next eight hours, during her volunteer shift at the clinic, Zimmer will shadow doctors and take vitals for patients, none of whom speak English. It’s part of a four-month study abroad trip through Ohio State’s Spanish department.

For a pre-med student who aspires to provide prenatal and neonatal care to Spanish-speaking women and their newborns, it’s a wonderful opportunity.

For a person a long way from her central Ohio backyard, the immersion trip is difficult at first.

“No friends or family, in a completely different environment with a foreign language. It was overwhelming. I had to adapt,” said Zimmer, a first-generation college student set to graduate in May 2020 before attending medical school.

“But it turned out to be the best time of my life.”

The trip was critical to Zimmer’s Ohio State experience. Already adept in clinical settings with a phlebotomy certification under her wing, Zimmer grew significantly more comfortable assisting patients in the LatinX community.

“My confidence in my medical Spanish, my flow, I owe it all to that trip,” Zimmer said.

To pay for the trip, Zimmer earned the Emmert Sutton Scholarship. Between that, her Provost Scholarship, an annual $2,000 merit-based scholarship, and the jobs she worked to earn money, Zimmer didn’t have to take any undergraduate college loans.

“I wouldn’t have been able to study abroad if I had to pay for it,” she said. “Not having to take out student loans my undergraduate years was so important because I’m looking at eight more years of college. That’d be impossible, financially.”

'A special experience'

Early morning Florida sunshine flooded the classroom, but that’s not what lit up the baby’s face. The little girl was smiling and laughing with Zimmer, who held and played with her.

It was a typical scene in December 2018, when Zimmer was among a group of Buck-I-SERV students serving at the Pathways Early Education Center in the largely migrant community of Immokalee, Florida.

Each year, students in Buck-I-SERV – Ohio State’s alternative break program – visit nearly 20 states and five countries in 80 trips, which take place during their breaks in March, May and December. Buck-I-SERV visits Immokalee three times a year, making it one of the longest-running Buck-I-SERV trips, dating back to spring 2009.

“It was a special experience, being able to serve in that community and help the staff and children,” Zimmer said. “And being able to connect with children and staff in their language, I love that. I was in heaven the whole time.”

Each December, the center experiences an influx of children as the migrant population in the area grows for the Florida fruit picking season, meaning volunteer help is important.

“Being in that community, gaining new perspectives and seeing how hard they work to make a better life for themselves, it was very impactful,” Zimmer said.

A white girl with blonde hair sits and smiles


'We changed his life forever'

Back in Columbus, a week before autumn semester of her senior year is set to begin, Zimmer is in an exam room conversing with a Spanish-speaking patient. Zimmer looks to Dr. Summit Shah and explains concerns the patient has been having.

Shah does an examination and tells Zimmer the patient has nothing to worry about, a message Zimmer relays to the relief of the woman.

At La Clinica Latina, a student-run clinic that is part of the Columbus Free Clinic System, Shah has mentored Zimmer for about two years. The clinic works in conjunction with Ohio State and the Ohio Latino Health Network. Zimmer volunteers at the clinic in numerous ways, along with helping in translation she manages all blood and urine lab testing ordered by physicians.

“This experience is invaluable,” said Shah ’05, ’10 MPH, ’10 MD, La Clinica Latina’s physician advisor since 2015. “Students like Jessica get exposed intimately to the social determinants of health. It instills or reinforces this permanent sense of compassion and understanding of the underserved population in our communities and an understanding of the broader health care system in America.”

In one of her first experiences at the clinic, Zimmer was able to help a diabetic begin to turn his poor blood sugar numbers in the right direction. The patient had been afraid to seek health care because of his inability to speak English. Seeing how thankful he was for her help gave Zimmer a clear vision for her future role in medicine.

“In just one night, we were able to change his life forever,” Zimmer said. “I put myself in his shoes — I’ve never been in a situation where I was afraid to go to the doctor. And then to think there are women who have those fears during their pregnancies, that’s unacceptable to me. I want to do something about that. I want to offer people a safe haven for medical care.”

A woman sitting on the floor playing with children

Jessica Zimmer, a senior biology and Spanish double-major from London, Ohio, spent mornings caring for infants at Immokalee’s Pathways Early Education Center during her Buck-I-SERV trip. Pathways serves more than 100 children, from 1 month old to 5 years old, the majority of which are from Immokalee families living at or below poverty levels.

Photo by Logan Wallace

Impact in action

More than 10,000 Ohio State students have volunteered for Buck-I-SERV, Ohio State’s alternative break, community service and civic engagement program. Each year, students in Buck-I-SERV take 80 trips, serving in five countries and nearly 20 states.


"I’ve worked with patients who have been scared to go to a doctor because they don’t speak English. I’ve seen the impact medical care can have on them once they receive it. I want to be the person who can offer a safe haven for that care."

Jessica Zimmer
Fourth-year pre-med biology and Spanish major


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