Growing up as the child of Filipino and Toisan immigrants near Los Angeles, Bernadette Lim never saw a doctor. “We didn’t trust them, it was not a place we wanted to go,” recalls Lim, who is now a doctor herself. Instead, her family relied on Vicks Vaporub, traditional treatments and soup.

But then her mom got so sick she had to be hospitalized — and her treatment confirmed the family’s worst fears about the medical establishment. The hospital used terminology they didn’t understand due to the language barrier, and performed procedures without their complete knowledge of the risks and benefits. “There was no fully informed consent,” Lim says.

Traumatic though this experience was, Lim channeled it in a positive direction and went into healthcare, earning a Master’s in Public Health from UC Berkeley and an MD from UCSF. Then,  she stepped off the conventional medical career path to create the kind of healthcare she wishes her family could have had when she was a kid. A few years ago, at age 24, Lim founded Freedom Community Clinic to offer low- to no-cost healthcare to underserved people in the Bay Area combining the strengths of ancestral, Indigenous healing with the strengths of Western medicine. The core team is led by Womxn and Gender Non-Conforming People of Color.

Lim sharing the work of Freedom Community Clinic during the Title 9 Pitchfest in Emeryville.

Inspiration for Lim’s vision came partly from mentors like Dr. Tolbert Small, a Black physician who cared for the Oakland-based Black Panther Party and was a pioneer in combining acupuncture with Western medicine. Like Small, Lim takes a holistic approach to healing that  melds recent medical techniques with ancestral practices.

“Acupuncture and body work are not seen as being rooted in the histories and traditions of Black and Brown people,” she says. “We must help our communities reclaim that healing.” In that spirit, she also brings healing to places where the people she serves already gather. Lim knew she was onto something powerful from the very beginning.

Freedom Community Clinic held its first event at a street festival in East Oakland in 2019. It was just three team members — Lim, who was then a medical student, with a blood pressure cuff and educational materials on chronic health disease; an acupuncturist; and a Reiki healer  — in the midst of neighbors dancing as Bay Area rap blasted.

“We’re bringing care directly to where people are gathering — to your street, your hood, your freeway underpass.”

Then someone came up to the acupuncturist, said they were afraid of needles, and gave it a try anyway when they heard how gentle and relaxing it was. They felt so good afterwards that they told their friends ‘you’ve got to try it!’, Lim continues, adding that then “their homies started trying it too.” One of them opened up to the team, sharing that they had untreated diabetes and high blood pressure in their family. “They asked, ‘can you help?’” she adds.

Today Freedom Community Clinic has healing sanctuaries in Oakland as well as on the UC Berkeley campus, with the latter geared toward low income students and staff. The team also holds regular healing clinics tailored to specific groups, including clinics specifically for Black and Brown communities, foster youth, and undocumented as well as unhoused. “We’re bringing care directly to where people are gathering — to your street, your hood, your freeway underpass,” Lim says. “It automatically puts people at ease.”

Instead of white coats, the team just dresses like the young people they are. “People are able to open up to me as a peer and are oftentimes surprised I’m a doctor,” she says.

Community members enjoying a healing for black lives clinic at San Antonio Park in East Oakland.

True to form, the clinic’s latest offerings include a healing event at an Oakland nightclub that’s popular over the Fourth of July. “We knew so many young people were going to be there, which made me more determined to bring healing directly to where they party, celebrate, and are having a good time” Lim says, adding that in addition to their regular services like harm reduction and safe sex education/supplies, her team introduced healthy drinks and talked about the work of the clinic between performances and DJ sets. “Who knows? Maybe we changed the trajectory of someone’s night.”

Besides meeting people where they already want to be, the team mirrors those they serve. “We speak their language, and reflect their lived experiences and identities,” Lim says. “Our healing feels like a party, like another great part of the day — healing doesn’t have to feel so heavy, there’s a lot to be joyful and grateful about.”

Top Photo: Lim with the team. All photos courtesy of Bernadette Lim.