Founding member of UCLA Mobile Clinic Project steps down after more than 20 years
Dr. Walter Coppenrath, one of the UCLA Mobile Clinic Project’s founding members, retired Wednesday at the clinic’s weekly volunteer night in Hollywood after more than 20 years of service. (Justin Jung/Daily Bruin senior staff)
By Justin Jung
July 3, 2021 7:50 p.m.
This post was updated July 5 at 5:55 p.m.
A founding member of the UCLA Mobile Clinic Project retired Wednesday at its weekly volunteer night in Hollywood.
Dr. Walter Coppenrath was a founding member of the Mobile Clinic Project, a student-run group providing health care and community health services to individuals experiencing homelessness. Undergraduate and medical students with the program volunteer weekly by providing health services at the Hollywood Food Coalition’s site, where free dinners are also provided.
Coppenrath helped found the program as a medical student at the David Geffen School of Medicine in 2000. Since then, Coppenrath has served as the lead attending doctor, overseeing the Mobile Clinic Project’s medical and undergraduate students.
Working at the Mobile Clinic Project has been fulfilling as he saw a sense of community emphasized through health care, Coppenrath said. As students go through medical or professional school, the strict professional expectations tend to dry out passion and empathy, Coppenrath added.
“Mobile Clinic was a way for us to have students kind of remain passionate about being compassionate,” Coppenrath said.
Leaving the program left Coppenrath with a complicated feeling, he said. While he will miss the work being done, Coppenrath said he is ready to take a step back and make space for new leaders, whom he trusts will continue the Mobile Clinic Project’s mission.
“Even if I take the step back, (and I) am no longer going to be involved with the clinic and its day-to-day operation, I know the clinic is going to survive,” Coppenrath said. “It survives not because of me or any other attending but because of the time, effort and passion the students devote to it.”
In retirement, Coppenrath plans to travel with his wife and plan the rest of their lives, he said. But leaving the Mobile Clinic Project won’t mean saying goodbye to medicine for good, Coppenrath said, adding he expects to return in some capacity.
Several of Coppenrath’s students, who affectionately call him Walt, said working with him for the past several years has been fulfilling and inspiring.
Nisha Choothakan, a medical student coordinator who started with the program in 2014, said working with Coppenrath helped inspire her own journey in medicine.
At one of Choothakan’s first times serving at the clinic, she was awed by Coppenrath’s ability to build trust through empathy and compassion with a client who chronically used alcohol, she said. In the span of about 10 minutes, Coppenrath had already motivated the client to seek help, Choothakan added.
Other students also said Coppenrath’s influence helped shape their experiences as health care providers.
Brandon Hankerson, a medical student coordinator who started at the Mobile Clinic Project as an undergraduate in 2016, said he joined because of his own experiences witnessing the effects of unstable housing on health. Wanting to work for a health care program that provides both medical and social services, Hankerson stayed in the program because he found a community at the Mobile Clinic Project.
Hankerson said Coppenrath emphasized making spaces for clients at the Mobile Clinic Project to be heard and allowing people to be comfortable and vulnerable.
“It’s been inspirational,” Hankerson said. “The way he practices medicine, I aspire to practice that myself as a future provider.”
Coppenrath’s inspiration was a big part of the reason why Hankerson returned to UCLA for medical school and the Mobile Clinic Project.
Coppenrath’s teaching style helped Felicia Zhang, an undergraduate biology alumnus and the 2020-2021 finance coordinator for the organization, she said. Whenever any students have questions, Coppenrath is always patient and understanding, taking each of them as a teaching opportunity, Zhang added.
Coppenrath’s consistency at the Mobile Clinic Project was key to continuing their work with compassion, said Andrew Min, an undergraduate psychobiology alumnus who was the database committee chair.
Min added that working with Coppenrath at the Mobile Clinic Project was an opportunity for him to better understand social barriers that exist and how providers can help bridge some of these gaps.
While the Mobile Clinic Project won’t be the same without Coppenrath, his students are happy for his future, several said.
“I wish that future cohorts … of volunteers could have also experienced the wealth of knowledge that he has to give,” Choothakan said. “So I’m really sad in that way, but I’m happy for him, and I am just so grateful of the legacy that he’s leaving behind and the lessons that he’s taught all of us.”