We’re really proud of this small program. It’s put a very large dent in the health care gap in this community.”
—Saundra Lightfoot
director, Comer Children’s Hospital Mobile Healthcare Van

When Darryl Banks climbed aboard the University of Chicago Comer Children’s Hospital Mobile Healthcare Van, he expected to get a shot. The active seven-year-old got the shot all right, bringing his immunizations up to date. But he also got something else: an urgent referral to a pediatric surgeon at the Chicago Comer Children’s Hospital.

“The nurse practitioner called me right away, saying Darryl had a big hernia that wasn’t closing in like it was supposed to,” says his grandmother, Deborah Ford. “Then they made an appointment for him at the hospital.” Two weeks later, Darryl’s hernia was fixed.

Darryl isn’t the only kid getting more than he bargained for at the Mobile Healthcare Van. The cheerful clinic-on-wheels travels to more than twenty-five public schools in the community, providing school-mandated immunizations and checkups to more than one thousand children a year. In its travels, says van director Saundra Lightfoot, “we see a lot of unmet medical needs.” For example: undiagnosed diabetes, high blood pressure, mental health problems, unmanaged asthma, and heart murmurs.

Unmet healthcare needs

What’s behind all these unmet needs? In large part, Lightfoot says, it’s because of limited access to medical care. Many children on the South Side have inadequate or nonexistent health insurance, which makes visiting a doctor difficult—if not impossible.

But accessing good care can pose a challenge even for those who, like Darryl, have Medicaid or private insurance. Many doctors have limited office hours; transportation can be difficult; co-payments are often beyond reach. Or, take Darryl’s case: “I’m raising seven grandchildren,” says his grandmother. “I take the kids to the doctor when I have to—and that’s it.”

The Mobile Healthcare Van helps fill those gaps for children both by providing primary care services at school and by referring families to permanent primary care. “At least 70 percent of our patients have no medical home,” says Lightfoot. “Our big charge is to change that.”

“We’re really proud of this small program,” says Lightfoot. “It’s put a very large dent in the health care gap in this community.”

Clearly, Deborah Ford would agree. “Darryl’s a whole different kid now that his belly looks normal,” she says. “He’s more sure of himself, and he plays better with the other kids. I sure do appreciate that van.”