Vanderbilt law and medical students partner in legal triage at Shade Tree Clinic

by Grace Renshaw
Wyatt Sassman '13 and Karen Lindell '12

Wyatt Sassman '13 and
Karen Lindell '12

As a summer associate with Ropes and Gray in Boston in 2011, Karen Usselman Lindell relished the opportunity to spend a portion of her time doing pro bono work through the Medical/Legal Partnership of Boston. When she shared her experiences with her husband, Brad Lindell, a fourth-year medical student at Vanderbilt, both became intrigued with the possibility of starting such a partnership in Nashville.

Along with other Vanderbilt medical and nursing students, Brad Lindell volunteers at the Shade Tree Clinic, a new initiative where medical and nursing students from Vanderbilt and other area schools offer free healthcare services to destitute patients. Clinic staffers frequently encounter patients whose legal issues make it difficult to treat existing medical conditions. "You and your children can't reliably be following a medical treatment plan if you've been evicted from your apartment and don't have a place to live," Karen Lindell explains.

Last fall, the Lindells began working with Wyatt Sassman, the Legal Aid Society's public interest opportunities director, to develop a medical/legal partnership at Shade Tree. "Medical/legal partnerships work because they connect people with the legal services they need by going where they already are—a medical clinic," Karen Lindell said.

The Vanderbilt students' interest in forming the interdisciplinary partnership was well-timed. Chay Sengkhounmany, an attorney at the Legal Aid Society of Middle Tennessee and the Cumberlands, had been working to develop just such a partnership, and she was excited to take referrals from Shade Tree as part of her project. While law students could not offer legal services, they could interview Shade Tree patients to identify potential legal issues and refer those who need legal assistance to Sengkhounmany. "Medical professionals triage patients to identify the most critical issues and address those first," Karen Lindell said. "We decided to adopt a 'legal triage' model."

Vanderbilt Legal Aid trained volunteers in January and launched a pilot program in February. Law students spent three Saturdays interviewing Shade Tree patients, identifying problems that typically fell into the general categories of housing, disability, income support, education and domestic and family law issues. The "triage model" worked, and according to Sassman, "Law students will be fully integrated into the clinic next fall, offering intake interviews. The legal component will be a fully functioning part of Shade Tree's treatment, connecting legal, medical and social services to comprehensively address a patient's needs."

Sassman will serve as special projects director of the medical/legal partnership in 2012-13. "The Legal Aid Board has given me the opportunity to focus all of my energies on this project and make sure it grows in a sustainable way," he said. "As the program grows, we hope to enable law students to become more involved with individual cases, working with legal aid attorneys from beginning to end."

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