Volunteer Spotlight: Zoey Palmer, the Pharmanatrix

Pens and Socks, and Azithromycin - Oh My!

By Alvin Chan

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“I started at Mills and I was talking to one of the pre-med advisors. She sent out a list of volunteer opportunities and the Berkeley Free Clinic was on that. Just from the brief description it sounded amazing,” Zoey Palmar reminisced on how she first heard about the Berkeley Free Clinic. “It was just a couple days before the application deadline [for Medical Section], so I managed to get my application in at the very last second. It felt very fateful.”

Whether serendipitous or destined, there is little doubt the Berkeley Free Clinic was fortunate to have Zoey as a volunteer for over three years until her departure in October. In addition to being an amazing Friday night medic, she served as the point-person for ordering office, homeless, and pharmaceutical supplies, the latter granting her the title of “Pharmanatrix”.

Zoey grew up in Denver before moving to New York City, with periodic visits to Sweden. “I kind-of have adopted grandparents who are Swedish.” She spent a year traveling and working on farms throughout Europe, New Zealand, and South America, and felt the travel and work experience provided her with more perspective.  “I learned how to have fun again,” she said. “I felt very old for being twenty-two. Letting myself lose a little responsibility and not worry so much was a big thing for me, and meeting new people and seeing lots of beautiful places help you question a lot of your basic assumptions and daily habits.”

She arrived to the Bay Area four years ago and began attending Mills College to finish her biology degree with aspirations of practicing in healthcare. When applying to Medical Section, she initially thought the opportunity “sounded too good to be true”, having volunteered at many other organizations, including an urban farm, social justice non-profits, and a hospice in Denver as a support person for families. However, her skepticism was assuaged by the application and interview process.

“Since I hadn’t come to one of the all-clinic orientations before, I was asked to interview and it was all quite a shock,” Zoey recalls. “The first part of my interview I felt totally hopeless and didn’t feel I hadn’t any chance of being here. The first two people who interviewed were very stone-faced and cold, and I was floundering. We all have different interviewing styles. The second part felt really natural and great, and I felt like really I was supposed to be here. Even the application questions and having the opportunity to write about and think about some of the things that were brought up in it, and feeling I can answer all of those things honestly, it feels rare in a volunteer setting sometimes.” When asked about her own interviewing style, she responds, “I’ve been called an ice queen. It’s a little bit of my personality normally.”

After being accepted, Zoey would meet her training cohort that remains an important support network in her life and from which developed lasting friendships. “I think we get pretty intimate with each other and each other’s’ bodies. A lot of the training offers up an opportunity to share a lot of personal experiences and struggles and perspective. That forces you to bond.” Throughout her training and as a medic, she has always felt privileged to being able to run appointments. “I’m still nervous before most appointments and still excited, and still walk away pretty honored and touched to be able to do some of the things we get to do, and be able to connect with people in a way that is so rare. I think the process and training forced me to grow a lot in the ways I hadn’t expected or been forced to do in a long time.”

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Zoey first became involved with ordering supplies as a trainee, taking over a some of the office and homeless supply orders, and then pharmaceutical orders after she was voted in. Orders are placed weekly, with most pharmaceutics ordered through McKesson and Moore Medical, and office supplies from Office Depot. Homeless supplies are ordered from various sources and received as donations whenever possible, although it has been difficult finding consistent donors. Before she left, Zoey had “handed over the responsibly of ordering socks to people in IRC, because that was a never ending challenge. You’re always looking for the cheapest socks you can find that are decent.”

Regarding some of the challenges of ordering supplies for the clinic, Zoey replies, “I think a lot of people in the collective process assume someone else will take care of it, or won’t notify someone that they are taking the last thing, so that can be the most challenging or frustrating. And our needs are so different in the clinic, like if I don’t know if a section has a training coming up, a section can just clear out whole supplies and I’ll have no idea.” What would be most helpful for those ordering supplies is to “write it down if anything is low. There is a sheet of paper in the IRC area and the pharmacy as well.” Otherwise, this could lead to another incidence where the clinic runs out of scotch tape. “Someone kept hiding the tapes that were ordered,” Zoey laughs. “I find things in very weird places sometimes, stuck in drawers that no one ever looks in.” When an item runs out at the clinic, sometimes she finds them in a stray box left in a corner. Thankfully, Karla with Medical Section has assumed much of Zoey’s previous responsibilities.

As for what’s next, Zoey had applied to PA programs and was waiting to hear back at the time of her interview last summer. “I had been interested in medicine since I was 14, but I didn’t know what route I was going to take. I thought about nursing, and then about medical school, and went back to nursing, but none of it ever felt right. Then I had a classmate that told me I should think about being a PA because they made more money and that just made me angry, so I didn’t look into it for a while. But in Colorado, I read a story following a woman, who was a PA, who worked in a clinic for undocumented workers and it just seemed like the right amount of autonomy, collaboration, and patient interaction that I was interested in.”

When asked what motivated Zoey to volunteer at the Berkeley Free Clinic for as long as she did, she leaves a closing thought, “It’s kind of a thing I don’t really think about it. It only comes up when you’re interacting with new people, or I’ve had romantic partners ask why are you doing this? That’s the only time I really question it is when I see the glazed-over look in their eyes. It’s just what I want to do. I mean, it can be frustrating and challenging and tedious, but it can feel really right to be here."