top of page

Medina Health Center Gets a Home of Its Own in Trenton

Updated: Jul 10


Sajid Syed cofounded the Medina Community Clinic in 2014 to connect physician volunteers to the uninsured and underinsured in Trenton. 


Comparing life expectancies of Princeton and Trenton residents, Kemi Alli, chief executive of the Medina Health Center expected to open this summer at 828 North Olden Avenue in Trenton, says, “If you’re wealthy and live in Princeton, you’re expected to live 10 years longer.”


The statistics are against Trenton; according to DataUSA’s 2022 socioeconomic data, its poverty rate is 26.2 percent; median household income, $44,444; median property value, $111,200; and percent uninsured, 31 percent.


Recognizing this huge gap between the haves and have nots and recognizing its effect on accessibility to physicians, and in particular to specialty medical care, Sajid Syed cofounded the Medina Community Clinic in 2014 to connect physician volunteers to the uninsured and underinsured in Trenton. The new on-the-ground center, which will provide primary care and behavioral health (mental health and substance abuse) services for adults and children, is the next step in Syed’s vision.


At the April 24 opening of the center, Syed shared the underlying motivation for the Medina Health Center. “We are privileged, and all that means is that we should have a sense of responsibility for those who don’t have privilege and are less fortunate than us.”


Zahid Baig, gastroenterologist and cofounder of Medina, shared his own motivations at the opening, “True happiness is helping others without expectation of reward. I look forward to seeing patients with no money; it brings me inner peace and happiness.”


Alli, a pediatrician who has spent her entire career in the community health clinic space, offers a more systemic perspective on Medina’s mission. “My belief is that certain rights are inalienable: good, housing, safety, education, jobs, and healthcare: It will take all of us to move the needle to reduce despair and inequity.”


Alli also envisions a particular approach to quality healthcare. “You look at the person holistically — emotionally, mentally, physically, and spiritually — understanding that we are a combination of all those things, and health is a combination of all those things.”

After 10 years of successfully providing voluntary specialty care for referrals from area clinics, Syed recognized that both changes in the healthcare landscape and the aging of many of the original Medina specialists were pushing them toward a bricks-and-mortar center in Trenton.


“Of the people I knew in the community who were good souls who wanted to give back,” Syed says, “40 to 50 percent have retired or sold their practices to hospital systems or large private equity groups and don’t have the independence to participate.” At the same time, younger doctors, many of whom are employees of these larger institutions, told him, “We can’t see patients in our own office, but if you have a clinic, we can get permission to come there and see patients.”


Medina’s earlier “uber-type model,” where patients were largely seen in the offices of the volunteering doctors, no longer works for younger physicians. “We quickly realized that this is not a sustainable model going forward. If we want to continue to provide care for the underserved, we needed a clinic,” Syed says.


Their ultimate goal is to become a federally qualified health clinic (FQHC) that is eligible for specific reimbursement systems under Medicare and Medicaid. But they will start as an ambulatory care licensed facility and have already applied for a license. The next step will be to become an FQHC look-alike, which does not get any federal grants, but does get support for charity care.


The other contributing factor to this change in Medina’s trajectory was the availability of both Syed and Alli to help lead the new venture. Syed retired at the end of 2023 and in March 2024 ended his stint as chair of the Muslim Center of Greater Princeton, leaving him time to devote his efforts to seeing the new center “to fruition.” At the same time, Kemi Alli — who last year ended 25 years at the Henry J. Austin Health Center, as a pediatrician, pediatric section chief, chief medical officer, and finally CEO — became available to serve as Medina’s “fractional [part-time] CEO.”


Alli says that a decade ago, when Syed first broached his plan for the Medina Community Clinic to Alli, she was skeptical of a group of providers “who understood their privilege and wanted to give back … out of the goodness of their hearts — which I thought was amazing.” But since then, the Medina Community Clinic has successfully provided specialty care to 300 to 500 patients a year and 1,800 visits a year across 35 different specialties.


Dr. Kemi Alli, trained as a pediatrician, now serves as chief executive of the Medina Health Center. 


In Trenton, a city with so much poverty, Alli explains, the existing clinics for outpatient services do not have sufficient capacity to provide healthcare to all who need it. “They are doing excellent work, but it’s not enough to take care of the entire need of the city,” Alli observes.


Dr. Kemi Alli, trained as a pediatrician, now serves as chief executive of the Medina Clinic. 

Even a small clinic makes a difference in the lives of its patients, she says, as Medina has been doing for its clients. Furthermore, many health centers that started “from one person’s or one group’s vision and dream,” Alli says, are now large, thriving institutions.

“With passion and commitment and dedication, Medina hopefully will grow over time,” Alli says.


Initial staffing for the center will include Mira Sadeghi, director of operations; Elona Deprez, fractional chief advancement officer responsible for development, communications, and marketing; a primary care provider, to be hired, as well as clinical support for that person, either a medical assistant or a nurse; and volunteer Abdul Hakim, who will be in charge of community affairs, serving as liaison between the clinic and the Trenton community.


Medina is also looking to expand its cadre of primary and specialty volunteers. Physicians may apply online by going to www.medinahealthcare.org/general-7 and clicking on the link under “Physician Volunteering Opportunities.” Volunteers at the clinic are covered by malpractice insurance.


Not only are physician volunteers essential to the Medina Health Clinic’s success, but also community volunteers like retired Trenton resident Hakim, who got involved with the Medina enterprise in 2021 when Syed invited him to be the “patient navigator” at the MGCP Free Clinic, a feeder clinic to the Medina Health Center.


“I grew up as a person that was in a low-income situation but aspired to become very successful,” the Atlantic City native says. “I went through all the trials and tribulations people go through from living in an urban area, but I was one of the ones who managed to escape the inner city.”


“I’ve been in the shoes of the people that I serve,” he adds, having spent his career working with programs for “people in need of services, whether food, clothing, shelter, money, or medical care. Medina Health Clinic is just another way that I have been given to help the community.”


As patient navigator at the MGCP Free Clinic, Hakim is responsible for setting up medical appointments to get clients the health support they need. Depending on what is most convenient for the clinic’s volunteer physicians, they will either see the patient in the clinic located in the Muslim Center of Greater Princeton or at their own medical offices.

Hakim schedules appointments for patients who call the office and ensures that patient information gets to doctors in a timely way.


Hakim also helps educate clients who have no insurance and are unfamiliar with the medical billing process and insurance available through Medicaid and NJ FamilyCare. “Many people feel like they don’t have the money to get services done at a particular hospital because they don’t understand the process of charity care,” Hakim says, adding that this is a particular issue for people from other countries.


Hakim shares a recent case of a woman with limited English who told him she was 26 weeks pregnant and had never seen a doctor. Hakim was able to serve as an interpreter, helping her to schedule an appointment at Capital Health System. The big surprise was that she was actually 36 weeks pregnant. “I thank Allah for bringing us together,” he says.


Hakim expresses great admiration for the volunteer doctors who “are so unique and so giving.” He recalls a woman who brought her mother to the clinic on a Sunday night. A physician who had come to pray at the mosque and had 10 guests waiting at his home agreed to see the woman at 9:30 that night, after prayers. “These doctors give back relentlessly to the patients for free,” Hakim says.


About himself, Hakim is modest. “I’m a person that sees themselves as someone who is a part to a puzzle — I fit into a place where I’m needed.”

Alli’s background has prepared her in interesting ways for the career she chose for herself and for the medical, systemic, and strategic demands of being chief executive officer of Medina Health Center.

Her father was a police officer and her mother an arts and language teacher in West Africa and an admissions staffer at Drexel University and Raritan Valley Community College.


Her childhood experiences living in Somerville, New Jersey, and in West Africa, she says, “both shaped me in different ways.” Somerville, she says, “was a very warm and inviting place to grow up.”


Having family close by, including her grandparents, was also important. “I was always feeling welcomed and loved,” she says.


She also learned from difficult familial experiences — her aunt died of breast cancer, her grandfather, lung cancer, and her grandmother, colon cancer; her uncle was homosexual and had AIDS; and she had a cousin who was arrested and released.


“I could very early on understand that people are not their diagnosis and not their circumstance. Just because I had a cousin who was arrested didn’t mean I loved him any less or that he did not love his family and want to do good for other people,” Alli says.


She also gained medical nuance from her grandfather’s unwillingness to stop smoking, even on his deathbed — what in doctor speak is often dubbed “noncompliance.” Alli has a different view. “To get him to stop smoking, you had to understand the root cause of why he smoked in the first place. It was a form of self-medication, in response to all the trauma he underwent as a young black man in the army.”


Labeling him as noncompliant made no sense to Alli. “There is more to people than that. When I went to medical school, that shaped how I treated others, and it was one of the things that led me into pediatrics.”


Alli’s years in Africa were also critical to who she is today, showing her “a world that is much bigger than we could ever have imagined. People of brown skin can do anything if allowed the opportunity; in Africa there are black presidents, vice presidents, teachers, lawyers, and doctors. That was a huge awakening.”


Initially interested in becoming a veterinarian, Alli switched to medicine after seeing too many dogs put to sleep during a summer vet job. She majored in biology and was premed at Rutgers University.


Alli’s choice to work in community health centers grew out of her resident rotation at Eric B. Chandler Health Center in New Brunswick, which, she says, “really resonated — because of my background. When I looked into their eyes, I saw someone from my family. An older man could be my grandfather; a woman with breast cancer could be my aunt.”


That got her thinking about the kind of care she would want for her own family, and she decided on a career in the underserved community in Trenton. “I wanted to be the kind of provider who gives patients the quality care they deserve but often don’t get,” she says.


Alli, who eventually made the jump from pediatrics to CEO, has noticed that many doctor CEOS are pediatricians. “We tend to be more empathetic, because often our patients can’t talk,” she explains. “That’s a quality that lends itself to wanting to help even more individuals within our community, and a way to do that is to be in leadership.”


Her understanding that many health problems in the inner city can be caused by systemic inequities also pushed her into leadership. For example, at the Henry J. Austin Health Center, she would see many kids with asthma where medicine was not resolving the problem. “I had to ask myself: why do they keep coming back — they should be getting better. Then I would discover they were living in a home where there is a negligent landlord and there is an infestation — and rodents, cockroaches, excrement, and hair will trigger asthma. I could give the child all the medicines I want, but until we get rid of the rodents or roaches, nothing would change.”


She decided that if she could lobby for a regulation requiring landlords to regularly exterminate buildings “then I could help thousands.” Upon reaching out to Isles, with experience in this area, she learned that such laws were already on the books, but the issue was holding landlords accountable. That meant advocating, getting others involved, and writing lots of letters, she says.


In January 2024, Alli found another way to widen her impact on the healthcare environment. Following her nine years as chief executive officer at the Henry J. Austin Health Center, she and Elona Deprez started a consulting firm, Allied Executive Solutions. They work with health clinics and other nonprofits, helping them “to do what they do even better” by providing them with executive-level support and strategic planning, implementing new programs, and branding and thinking strategically about organizations.


The firm’s niche is in providing what Alli calls “fractional executive leadership—part-time, per diem, temporary. I give them a fraction of my time. It is a win-win.”


That works well for Medina, she says, “a small organization, just getting off the ground. If I give them five or ten hours a week, that is what they need now.”


More information: www.medinahealthcare.org.


16 views0 comments

Comments


bottom of page