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When East meets West: Chinese community center teaches immigrants the ways of U.S. health care

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, April 22, 2010 - When local Chinese leaders were looking for ways to teach new immigrants about health care in St. Louis, one answer turned out to be a Chinese-language puppet show. The puppets play to appreciative audiences of recent arrivals who often don't speak English well or have reservations about seeking medical help. 

The puppets have been especially useful in orienting immigrants to Western approaches to health care, says Harold Law, director of the St. Louis Christian Chinese Community Service Center, 8225 Olive Blvd., where the shows are held.

"Basically, there are two groups of Chinese immigrants coming here," he says. "One is educated and doesn't need our help. The other group we've targeted are people who because of language barriers, or lack of health insurance, are hesitant to see a doctor until they become very sick."

For Law, at least, the Chinese center has marked one of the high points of service he has embraced since coming to St. Louis.

Although his last name sounds American, it's actually the phonetic translation of his Chinese name, "Lo," which he says sounds exactly like "Law." He's Cantonese, and his ancestors are from south China. His family moved to Hong Kong from Shanghai in 1948. Law came to the United States as a refugee in 1956, worked his way through college, and earned a doctorate in engineering from Washington University in 1975.

While in school, he became acquainted with many first-generation Chinese immigrants who worked mainly in the hand laundry business, and he later advised the second generation children of these immigrants. In 1979, when the first wave of refugees from Indo-China came through St. Louis, Law and his wife, Helena, provided voluntary support services to more than 70 of them, helping them find work, overcome language barriers and gain access to medical care.

Law has had a successful career in business as well, having worked in the aerospace industry and for the federal government before starting his own high- tech information company, which he later sold before retiring. Along the way, he received the Engineering Alumni Achievement Award from Washington University, the Outstanding Community Economic Development Leadership Award from Missouri, the Community Service Award from the Anti-Defamation League, and the Excellent Community Service Award from the Organizations of Chinese Americans. Now 75, Law is still going strong and shows no signs of wanting to give up his leadership role at the center.

Immigrants visit the center for a variety of reasons, including help in finding work and housing. But Law says the top request involves health issues -- where to get help and how. That's why the center decided to design puppet shows to help immigrants navigate the health-care system.

"For 2,000 years, the Chinese have been using puppet shows for teaching history, tradition or morals or whatever," Law says. "We use the show to help overcome cultural barriers. One show focuses on showing immigrants how to communicate health concerns to doctors and nurses."

Another show introduces the concept of a family physician, an idea new to immigrants accustomed to visiting a hospital whenever they become ill.

The biggest challenge is getting immigrants to embrace Western treatments.

Law says some immigrants are so accustomed to Chinese medications that they favor them over Western medicine. In some instances, Law says, some immigrants turn to Chinese remedies if they feel that the Western treatment isn't working. In other cases, he says, immigrants might take both types of medicine at the same time. Fortunately, the Chinese remedies tend to be so mild that he has heard of no adverse side effects when immigrants take both medicines at the same time.

The center has a social worker, and it has recruited two volunteer doctors and nurses who see patients a few hours each week. Because these service providers are fluent in both English and Chinese, discussion with immigrants about their health and service needs is easier, Law says.

The center offers free medical consultation, access to vaccines, health screenings, health fairs and other programs to encourage immigrants to take care of themselves and avoid unhealthy habits, such as smoking.

In addition, the center emphasizes traditional Chinese approaches to wellness, including exercises to help seniors improve their balance and coordination.

After opening its doors more than six years ago, the center has served more than 9,000 visitors, some of them repeats, Law says. About 90 percent of the visitors are Asian, most of them Chinese. The center also has served a few immigrants from African countries and from Bosnia.

The center's annual budget is nearly $200,000. About half of it comes from grants and contributions from several local groups, including the United Way, the Missouri Foundation for Health and the Jewish Fund for Human Needs, Law says. Another 19 percent comes from donations from individuals, 13 percent from fundraising events and about 7 percent from church groups. In addition to health care, the center provides adult education classes to help immigrants become proficient in English and computer literate.

The center is an example of how various immigrant groups have set up their own social services to address health care and other needs.

"We started when a few of us, Christians in different churches, came together to talk about the needs of the Chinese or Asian population," Law says. "We decided to establish this nonprofit organization that basically provides services to those who are underserved."

Law can cite plenty of examples proving the center's value. A patient discovered that he had kidney disease and, through the center, was able to see a specialist who saved his life. Other cases have involved women's health issues, such as teaching new mothers the value of prenatal care and giving birth to healthy babies.

Law, relaxed and smiling, sits in a chair in his sparse office and thinks about work by the center. "This has been wonderful, just wonderful."

Funding for health reporting is provided in part by The Missouri Foundation for Health, a philanthropic organization whose vision is to improve the health of the people in the communities it serves.

Robert Joiner has carved a niche in providing informed reporting about a range of medical issues. He won a Dennis A. Hunt Journalism Award for the Beacon’s "Worlds Apart" series on health-care disparities. His journalism experience includes working at the St. Louis American and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, where he was a beat reporter, wire editor, editorial writer, columnist, and member of the Washington bureau.