Three years ago I started working as the primary care provider at Grace Clinic. Shortly after I moved to Elkin some members of my church asked me to work at the free clinic so it could expand its services to three full days per week. I was apprehensive; Grace Clinic depends on grant funding, so it didn’t offer much job security, and with only one year of work experience as a physician assistant I wasn’t sure I was ready to work without a supervising physician in house. I also knew it would be a challenge to serve the uninsured, but I was excited about the opportunity to serve my local community, so I took the job and have never once regretted it.
Our small clinic has been fortunate to receive generous support from Hugh Chatham Memorial Hospital in the form of free lab and imaging services. Many local physicians agree to free consult services, and when advanced specialty care is needed we are usually able to get patients into the charity program at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center. We have several hard-working volunteers who run our Medication Access Review Program to obtain thousands of dollars’ worth of free medicines from various pharmaceutical companies. Aside from that we stick to the basics: $4 generic medicines, frequent check-ups for those with chronic conditions, and lots of patient education.
There are still challenges. Last year we saw almost 1,500 patients from three counties. I have patients who are homeless. I have patients who have Masters Degrees, but can’t find work. I have patients who work two or three jobs, take care of children and elderly family members, and do not have the time or resources to take care of themselves. One woman died from a myocardial infarction one week before her cardiology appointment, for which she had been waiting for three months. Many wait years to be awarded disability. Some cannot overcome their substance abuse. Some end up in intensive care because they resist going to the ER for fear of receiving a bill they can’t pay. Some days I feel like Sisyphus.
Despite the challenges, most days are rewarding. Most days I see people getting better. I hear them say “Thank you” and “God bless you.” I see their blood sugars and blood pressures come down. I do exactly what I went to school for. I went to PA school because I wanted to help people be healthy, and that is what I now have the opportunity to do.
Our patients want to be healthy. They want to be able to work, and to improve their lives. They wait months for their first appointment and another two months to receive free medicine if they qualify for the pharmaceutical programs. They borrow money for gas to come to their appointments. Our patients aren’t perfect, but most of them are doing the best they can. Like you and me, they all need healthcare.
If funding runs out I can get another job with better benefits and paid vacations, but my patients have no other options. Even when the Affordable Care Act is implemented next year the reality is that most of our patients still won’t be able to afford insurance. North Carolina elected not to expand Medicaid, so an estimated 1,268,000 people will be left without any medical coverage, and for those people Grace Clinic will continue to fill a critical need.
Three years ago I started working at a free clinic. The experience has opened my eyes to the challenges that so many people face. I am fortunate not just because I have made better choices and worked harder, but because I have had better options and my road has been easier. I understand now how badly communities need assistance programs. Communities need free clinics, and free clinics need your help. Please get involved. Donate, volunteer, and encourage others to contribute. You won’t just help your neighbors; you will enrich your own life. I know it has enriched mine.