Bridgeport health fair offers education, outreach

Amanda Cuda, Staff Writer CT Post
Published: 09:51 p.m., Wednesday, April 7, 2010

BRIDGEPORT -- Heaven Gruel needs help.

The 37-year-old Bridgeport resident has been out of work for roughly a year and a half, and there's nary a facet of her life with which she didn't need assistance. She even found herself largely without a wardrobe after most of her clothes were stolen recently while she was doing laundry. Gruel is also, like 50 million Americans, without health insurance. And, despite the recent passage of a federal health care reform bill that will eventually extend coverage to 32 million of the nation's uninsured, Gruel still has the here and now to worry about.
Without insurance, Gruel can't afford preventative care, like physicals and other health screenings. That can be scary, she said. "When you don't have any insurance, you sit back and suffer," she said.
Given her situation, Gruel has had to find alternative avenues through which to take care of herself -- like local health fairs. On Wednesday, she attended her second health fair in a month, at Housatonic Community College. The school was hosting the 7th annual Community Health Fair, sponsored by HCC and the Bridgeport Health Department. The fair, which had the theme "A Healthier America: One Community at a Time," featured more than 50 vendors, including Bridgeport Hospital , St. Vincent's Medical Center  and Southwest Community Health Center. Vendors were offering everything from information on services to free health screenings.
Gruel said she was taking the opportunity to visit every booth she could and learn about as many services as possible. She also took advantage of the booths offering such screenings as blood pressure tests.
She said she's only recently learned that health fairs are a great way to help fill in the gaps in care faced by many people without insurance. Gruel also has gotten referrals to other services through health fairs, including the local Community Closet, which helped her find clothes to replace the ones that were stolen. In her view, one of the greatest benefits that fairs like this provide is education about the resources available to people in the community. "A lot of these services -- we don't know they exist," Gruel said.
The fair ran from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. and, shortly before noon, it had already received about 500 visitors, said Linda Griffin, health services coordinator at HCC. Griffin said roughly 1,000 people visit the fair annually, and this year's fair was on track to be an average one.
One major change that she'd noticed from previous years was that more students were attending the fair. She said there could be a variety of reasons for the bump in student traffic, including increased promotion of the fair, and increased student awareness of health issues. Griffin said it's also possible that there's greater need in the student community.
"Many of the students are uninsured or underinsured," she said. Suzanne Standish, Bridgeport Hospital manager of cardiac rehabilitation, agreed the fair was a venue for people who might not have a lot of health care options. "It's free and, especially in this type of setting, you get a lot of uninsured," said Standish, who was doing blood cholesterol tests at the fair. "The students here aren't as young (as they are at other schools)."
Not all who attended the health fair were in as bad a way as Gruel. In fact, most of those interviewed at the fair Wednesday afternoon said they had medical coverage. But, many of them agreed that you can never learn too much about taking care of yourself.
Shirley Johansson, 63, of Bridgeport, is an HCC student and decided to check out the fair, even though she has insurance and access to health care. She said she'd visited more of the booths, and loved learning about all the services available to people.
"It raises your awareness," Johansson said. "It shows that if you need help, you can get it."