Saratoga Springs

Outlook 2021: Saratoga Community Health Center is extension of doctor’s humanitarian, social justice efforts

Dr. Sophia Conroy
Dr. Sophia Conroy

Published Feb. 25, 2021 in Outlook 

Hiding under a blanket on a bus at a Chinese military checkpoint in the Himalayas, Sophia Conroy had letters and photos in her backpack. She was determined to deliver the items from Tibetan refugees to loved ones persecuted in mainland China.

An elderly Tibetan woman appeared stunned after learning from the American activist’s dispatch that her son scaled the treacherous peaks to safety in India.

The man lived. The woman cried. Conroy didn’t forget it.

That occurred in 2003, while Conroy worked overseas for Human Rights Watch. Her humanitarian work ranges from sending letters to working for philanthropist George Soros at the Open Society Institute.

“In my case, I feel like the work I did over the years helped to mature me as a human being. That, I think, in terms of the skills of doctoring, was something that I was able to build on,” Conroy said.

In a 2005 pivot, Conroy began taking part-time classes at Columbia University, NYC College of Technology and Hunter College to get into medical school. After entering Albany Medical College’s bioethics doctorate program — par for the course, per Conroy’s past — she became president of a Physicians for Human Rights student chapter.

She perceives her current role in Saratoga Springs as in keeping with her social justice work.

“I’ve been driven by the same thing the whole time,” the 46-year-old said. “I’ve just been able to express and experience it in different ways.”

‘A human right’

Saratoga Hospital hired Conroy in October for its Saratoga Community Health Center. The eight-year-old operation is devoted to assisting financially strapped residents with basic medical concerns, food insecurity, housing, addiction and mobility.

Saratoga County’s deep coffers are unevenly distributed, a 2019 county/Saratoga Hospital report found. The wealth gap ranks third in the state and 30th in the United States. Its largest poverty pockets include Mechanicville (53 percent), Day (47 percent), Edinburgh (43 percent) and Corinth (42 percent).

SCHC clientele range from rural denizens near the county’s northern edge to seasonal contract workers on the backstretch of Saratoga Race Course.

Outlook 2021 Index: The Gazette’s annual guide to business in our region

Conroy was both surprised and in awe of the center’s pay-what-you-can model in a seemingly well-to-do area.

“There was a little bit of disconnect until I learned [that] beyond Saratoga County, there are roughly 41 million uninsured people in the country,” Conroy said. Within those ranks, roughly 650,000 people are served by 355 officially registered free clinics.

Conroy was the beneficiary of services from Bellevue Hospital in New York City when she lacked health insurance after graduating from Vassar College in 2002. Fascinated by the work, she later volunteered in the hospital’s emergency room for two years.

The experience at Bellevue shaped her perception of “health care as a human right.”

“I really personally experienced that deep insecurity and vulnerability,” Conroy said. “And for me, there was almost a sense of shame that came at a time in my life when I really needed medical care and I couldn’t afford it.”

Her work with the U.S. Tibet Committee (1998 to 2003), the International Tibet Network (March to July of 2003) and Human Rights Watch (2003 to 2004) failed to earn her a “livable salary.” While living in Brooklyn, she waited tables at the now-closed Baker Street Pub to stay afloat.

While staying connected with Students for a Free Tibet and later getting involved in the Albany-based Rights Action Lab, Conroy eventually left paid work in the Tibetan independence movement. She wanted to hold a flexible and stable gig while furthering her education in medical sciences, her college minor.

She joined a temp agency for direction.

“This is one of those ‘life throws you in a funny direction’ moments,” Conroy recalled.

The agency placed her with the Open Society Institute, a philanthropic organization run by billionaire liberal activist George Soros. Extremely interested in the work, Conroy immediately applied for an open position. She got it.

Working at the nonprofit from 2004 to 2011, Conroy sharpened her insight on domestic issues. Before being accepted into medical school, she helped support groups associated with causes such as marriage equality and judicial independence.

“I would never have thought about philanthropy as something activist-minded,” Conroy said. “It just wasn’t on my radar. It wasn’t the world I came from, you know?”

Outlook 2021 Index: The Gazette’s annual guide to business in our region

She attributes part of her interest in international affairs to time spent with her mother during holidays in England and Greece while growing up. The remainder of her childhood had been spent on a North Country apple orchard near the New York-Quebec border.

From an early age

Conroy said her grandmother, a former one-room schoolhouse teacher in the Beekmantown area during the early 1900s, preached the value of self-education and reading.

She also idolized her father, too. The elder Conroy, she said, was ambitious, passionate and “never asked someone to do something that he wasn’t willing to do himself” during his career in construction.

“The ethic of just caring that whatever way you’re contributing to the world, you’re leaving it a little bit better than the way it was is the mindset that I was raised with,” Conroy said.

As young as 10 years old, Conroy began sending letters to Ronald Reagan. With a laugh, she recounted mailing the then-president lyrics to John Lennon’s 1971 hit “Imagine.”

At Seton Catholic Central High School in Plattsburgh, she started an Amnesty International Club. Alongside classmates, Conroy sent letters to political prisoners.

A swath of her life’s work in humanitarian aid occurred by mistake, Conroy recalled. Seeking to study Eastern philosophy at a time when Vassar College had a strong emphasis on Western teachings, she enrolled in a Tibetan studies program offered by the University of Wisconsin at Madison.

During her junior year, Conroy studied abroad in Nepal with a family displaced by the oppressive Chinese occupation of Tibet. Conroy felt obligated upon her return to the U.S. to devote her “power and privilege” as an American to the Tibetan independence movement.

Outlook 2021 Index: The Gazette’s annual guide to business in our region

Within two years, she helped launch Students For A Free Tibet into an independent organization. She credits “serendipity” for her involvement in Tibetan activism — the launching point of a lifetime in professional humanitarian service.

COVID stresses

Now a family physician, spouse, mother of two, active member of multiple medical nonprofits and still-vibrant voice in the Tibetan independence movement, Conroy channels her energy across multiple fronts while COVID-19 rages on.

She often feels guilty as the likeliest member of her Albany household to bring the virus home. She and her husband, Spencer Freedman, have taken extra precautions.

“We try to tell the kids that we’re wearing masks, maintaining this distance and we’re taking all of these precautions, not out of fear of getting sick,” Conroy said, “but out of love for our neighbors and wanting to help keep our community safe.”

Meanwhile, SCHC has experienced an uptick in patients struggling with homelessness, food insecurity and addiction as a result of COVID-19. The center also provides telemedicine visits, drive-thru testing, quarantine guidance and checkups following recovery.

Conroy expects the long-term effects of COVID-19, as well as economic-related concerns, to linger with patients beyond the pandemic’s foreseeable end.

“You see in the news that is something that’s been playing out in these communities,” Conroy said. “And, you know, it’s within that setting of the COVID pandemic that I went up to Saratoga.”

At a glance

Dr. Sophia Conroy is one of five family physicians practicing at the Saratoga Community Health Center.

Started in 2013, the Saratoga Hospital-operated center is devoted to assisting financially strapped residents.

Saratoga County’s wealth gap ranks No. 3 in the state and No. 30 in the United States.

Conroy has a 25-year history of working for humanitarian and social justice causes, namely in the Tibet independence movement and as a project coordinator with the Open Society Institute.

As a result of COVID-19, food insecurity, housing, addiction, and mobility provided at the SPHC are in high demand.

Outlook 2021 Index: The Gazette’s annual guide to business in our region

Categories: Business, News, Outlook 2021, Saratoga County

Leave a Reply