On a recent night in June, a small crew of UTMB students set sail from Galveston, with medical supplies in tow, to the small coastal town of Seadrift, Texas, marking the maiden voyage of the Coastal Community Care project (CCC) — a project dedicated to improving the health of those living in remote areas along the Gulf Coast by way of a floating, free health care clinic.

The CCC project, a collaborative effort of the UTMB Sailing Club and the HLK Memorial Sailing School (HLK), is made up of health care students, physicians, residents, sailors and volunteers who are involved in sailing and share a passion for improving health care in impoverished coastal fishing villages along the Texas, Louisiana and Mexican coasts.

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 “We sailed from Galveston to Seadrift, a small fishing town located on San Antonio Bay that is without easy access to the most basic of primary care,” said Christopher Romero, UTMB Sail Club president and UTMB graduate student in the M.D./Ph.D. program. “We set up a booth at their 30th Annual Shrimp Festival and did blood pressure, blood glucose and health screenings.  We tested 77 people over the course of two days, made new friends and had a blast in the process.”

The overnight sail to Seadrift took close to 22 hours onboard the Vivace, a 33-foot catamaran donated and captained by CCC’s UTMB faculty sponsor and Sail Club director, Dr. Scott Weaver.

“One challenge of the trip down is the shallow water surrounding the Seadrift harbor. Fortunately, my catamaran is ideal for thin water and is also comfortable for the group of five to sail down,” Weaver said. “The overnight offshore portion from Freeport to Cavallo Pass was very windy and a little rough for first-time offshore sailors, and the sky was very dark with a new moon that night. But the crew adjusted well, the radar and GPS kept us out of harm’s way, and everyone even managed to get a little sleep overnight between watches.”

Seadrift Chamber of Commerce President Cindy Alford welcomed the UTMB crew —Romero; Latham Fink, UTMB Sail Club Commodore and M.D./Ph.D. graduate student; Dr. Konstantin Tsetsarkin, UTMB Sail Club member and post-doctoral research fellow; David Darrow, UTMB Sail Club vice president and MS3; Stevi Darrow, ethnographic researcher and graduate student; and Weaver, director of the Institute for Human Infections and Immunity/Scientific and Galveston National Laboratory professor— to Seadrift and applauded their efforts to make a difference in the health care of its residents.

“Many in our community do not have insurance or transportation and are not able to go to the doctor when they have a need,” Alford said.  “It was great having the CCC group here to inform our community and do wellness checks. We had positive feedback from our citizens and we look forward to seeing the team again.”

The love of sailing and a connection to the water offered the medical team a unique opportunity to bond with the citizens of Seadrift, creating a good patient/doctor relationship right from the start.

“I think that sailing really did give us an open door when it came to cultural competency with this community.  It really put us at a on a good footing with the population —they could relate to us and we could relate to them,” Romero said. “It might have been really hard to do if we would have just driven down there to provide a clinic for a day.”

The idea for the CCC project was conceived during Romero’s evacuation from Galveston due to Hurricane Ike in September of 2008.

“I went back home to the Rio Grande Valley and was there for a couple of weeks.  While I was there I volunteered with a group that was taking food, supplies and pre-natal vitamins down to a remote coastal fishing town in Mexico 50 miles south of Matamoros,” said Romero. “Getting there by road took a whole day and parts of the road were washed out, so it was actually easier to get there by boat.  It made me realize that many times when people think of rural health care they think of communities out in the country, but there are many coastal communities that are in need of health care services.”

In November 2009 the CCC, currently made up of 15 members, began researching health care access along the Texas coast and met with community leaders and county health authorities to identify the unmet health needs of the community and assess the availability of health education. 

The CCC’s focus is on treating acute illnesses and addressing the underlying social and economic causes of chronic disease as well as exposing medical students and residents to the challenges of serving rural populations.

“The CCC project being developed by the UTMB Sailing club is a great way to provide our students with a unique health care opportunity with some offshore sailing experience along the way,” said Weaver. “The program extends our institutional presence and mission into a part of Texas where we are not well known. Seadrift is a relatively remote, poor, fisheries-based community in south Texas with no health care provider, so its residents have to travel far even for primary care. Our students may be the only source of education and screening available to detect and prevent diseases that would otherwise go unnoticed until an acute event occurs. The program also exposes UTMB students to a rural population and primary health care setting that they are unlikely to experience in the typical tertiary care, urban training environment of an academic medical center. It’s a real win-win program on several levels.”

The project is also looking into ways to establish and maintain a continuum of care to the communities it serves.

“Our goal in the future is to be able to provide primary health care for two or three days at a time and then set up a framework by which we can improve the community’s health long-term,” Romero said. “We would like to establish quarterly visits to enable us to make some strides in improving people’s general well-being. If a patient is participating in our project, they could essentially see their primary care physician/student volunteer four times a year, which would be a significantly higher rate of health care utilization than the general population. “

The CCC is currently seeking grants, donations and volunteers to support its future excursions and is looking to expand its sailing fleet to serve a larger population.

“This is really an opportunity for the entire UTMB community to get involved in rural health care,” said Fink. “We are interested in nursing students, physician assistants, anyone that has  an interest in sailing and doing this kind of care — just about everybody could contribute to this project. We are also interested in any physicians who would like to volunteer and sail with us and help teach a bunch of bright-eyed, bushy-tailed med students. “ 

For more information on the CCC project and how to get involved contact Latham Fink at lhfink@utmb.edu