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Clinic strives for community health

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"We're going to whip everybody into shape," said Dr. Dorothy Ogundu, laughing as she jokingly described her method for preventive care at her new clinic, Aki Life Health Center. "We're going to keep them healthy in spite of themselves."Southeast Queens has a high level of preventable diseases, including HIV/AIDS, diabetes, hypertension and heart disease, that are largely related to lifestyle, Ogundu said. At the same time, the area has only two hospitals, both in Jamaica, and by the nature of the system staff there do not have much time to spend with each patient, she said."Some of the women, the hairdresser knows them better than their doctor does," Ogundu said. "We're going to change that."To do so, the 49-year-old doctor and Holliswood resident opened her clinic at 114-55 Farmers Blvd. Monday in a converted storefront church, right in the geographic heart of southeast Queens. The center will offer full checkups at a reasonable price as well as lifestyle consultations, health lectures, and exercise and yoga classes, during business hours Monday to Saturday. After holding an open house at her new office April 2 and attending a health fair at Jamaica's Greater Allen Cathedral the next day, Ogundu said interest seemed high."The phone's been ringing off the hook," she said.Unfortunately for Ogundu and her potential patients, many insurance companies will not reimburse for preventative care, only for treatment of injuries and disease. While the Holliswood doctor believes that is the wrong approach, she also accepts that her way, which she has financed out of her own savings, will not be financially rewarding."Maybe I'm not being realistic," Ogundu said. "But that is the path I have taken-I follow my heart."As a teenager, the future doctor came to study at Chicago's Loyola University from her native Nigeria, then went on to Chicago Medical School and a residency as a board-certified OBGYN at what is now called Interfaith Medical Center in Brooklyn.But when her husband died at a young age, Ogundu took a sabbatical to help Nigerian women suffering from obstetric fistulas, tears during childbearing that leave the sufferers socially stigmatized but can be repaired by those with the right training."It gets to the point that you ask yourself the question, what are you here for?" Ogundu said.It was back in Nigeria that she began to understand the connections between modern medicine and traditional remedies and to incorporate both in her practice. "I had to have my grandmother, who did not have a college degree. teach me about health," Ogundu said.From Nigeria, she formed the non-profit medical group Angel Docs and took on other causes like water quality and malnutrition during a period of time that saw her commute between New York City and far-off destinations on four continents. She eventually remarried and moved to Holliswood in southeast Queens, where the lack of preventative health care disturbed her."There is a health crises going on in southeast Queens," she said.In addition to a lack of insurance, a sedentary lifestyle and poor diet, Ogundu said residents are wary of hospitals. Many come from the South, she said, and recall when the government let a group of black men in Alabama suffer from syphilis untreated from 1932 to 1972 in order to examine them, a project known as the Tuskegee Study."We have not done enough to let them know this will not happen again," Ogundu said.The 49-year-old doctor hopes to create a more welcoming environment at her clinic but will also provide tough love. She will not be quick to hand-out pills, which she said can sometime be a crutch, but will rather try to find out the deeper causes of patients' problems."At this place, we're going to throw away the Band-Aid," she said. "We've become a society of quick fixers."But at the Aki Health Life Center, "they have to do work," Ogundu said of her clients.Reach reporter Michael Morton by e-mail at news@timesledger.com or by phone at 718-229-0300, Ext. 154.

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