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Caring Hands clinic offers free health care to poor in White County

POSTED: March 1, 2009 8:28 p.m.
DEBBIE GILBERT /The Times

Registered Nurse Sandy Alexander, left, and certified nursing assistant Sherry Ferguson look over a patient chart at Caring Hands Free Clinic in Cleveland.

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CLEVELAND — After years of planning and praying, White County’s free clinic finally opened to the public last Tuesday.

Located on the west side of Cleveland’s downtown square, the Caring Hands Health Clinic offers a small beacon of hope to a community that’s been hit hard by the recession.

"Many of these people have had financial problems and loss of jobs," said interim clinic director Lura Walsh. "They’ve been going to a doctor only when they absolutely had to, and then they couldn’t afford follow-up care."

Dr. Charles White, one of only a handful of physicians who practice full-time in White County, is among those who’ve been trying to get the clinic going for the past two years.

"This is the fun part (seeing patients)," he said Tuesday night. "I knew it would happen eventually."

Caring Hands is modeled after Good News Clinics in Gainesville, though on a much smaller scale. Initially, patients will be able to see a doctor only from 6 to 9 p.m. on Tuesdays, and only by appointment.

"This is not a walk-in clinic. We aren’t set up to handle emergencies," said White. "We’re primarily focusing on chronic conditions."

Before enrolling as a patient, each person must come in for a meeting to determine whether they qualify for the program. They must be uninsured, not eligible for Medicare or Medicaid, and with an income not more than 150 percent of the federal poverty level.

Seventeen patients showed up for their first clinic appointments Tuesday night. White said he was pleased with the turnout. "The most we can reasonably see in three hours is about 18," he said.

The clinic, which occupies about 2,500 square feet of donated space in a former drugstore, has four exam rooms, a pharmacy room, a small lab, administrative offices and a conference area.

Interior walls throughout the clinic are decorated with large paintings of nature scenes by noted artist Judy Bynum George.

Almost all of the furniture and medical equipment was donated by doctors who are retired or have renovated their existing practices. Materials and labor for renovating the building also were donated by volunteers.

White said the clinic’s board did agree to spend about $1,800 to purchase one particular item: an EKG machine, which can detect abnormal heart rhythms.

"I didn’t want to open (the clinic) without that," he said.

White said he needed to be able to ascertain whether a patient is in imminent danger of having a heart attack.

"Some of these patients are ticking time bombs, with serious untreated problems," he said. "High blood pressure, diabetes, COPD (a severe lung condition)."

In fact, White ordered an EKG test for one of the first patients he saw Tuesday night. The man’s blood pressure was so high that the doctor was afraid to let him go home without checking his heart function.

At times on opening night, there were more volunteers in the clinic than patients. In addition to White, the clinic is staffed by two nurse practitioners who are qualified to diagnose and treat minor illnesses. There were also several nurses and nursing assistants, as well as people who volunteered to handle the office duties.

White said they’re still working on building a larger pool of volunteers so the same professionals won’t have to work every week.

"Already we have four or five doctors who have gone through the paperwork to be able to volunteer, and we expect to have eight or nine total," he said. "About half of them are retired. We also have two more nurse practitioners who have shown an interest in volunteering."

Joyce Campbell, a family nurse practitioner who works at the prison in Alto, said she was happy to donate her Tuesday evening to the clinic.

"I live here in Cleveland, and I can see the need for this," she said. "I followed my heart."

Opening night was sometimes a bit chaotic, as the volunteers tried to establish a clinic routine and figure out who should do what.

Walsh made notes on issues that still needed to be addressed, and beefing up the pharmacy is high on her list. The clinic gets some drug samples from pharmaceutical companies, and local pharmacies have agreed to sell clinic patients certain generic drugs at the same $4 price Wal-Mart charges.

But these measures are not adequate for treating diabetes, one of the most prevalent health problems in White County. On Tuesday, nurses gave several patients blood glucose monitors that had been donated to the clinic.

But there weren’t enough test strips for patients to use the devices on a daily basis. And one patient’s diabetes was severe enough that the person needed insulin. Walsh said she would work on finding a pharmaceutical company that could donate some of the product.

Not everything is donated. Most of the lab work at Caring Hands is contracted out to Quest Diagnostics, which picks up specimens Wednesday evening and can usually report results the following day. Nurse practitioners can see patients on Thursday morning if their test results require follow-up.

But the lab work has to be paid for by the clinic. The Caring Hands fund-raising campaign has netted more than $50,000 so far, but the need will be ongoing.

"We’re doing pretty well considering the economy," said Walsh. "But of course we’re going to be spending much of that money as soon as we get it."

With a steady stream of donations, she said, the clinic would be able to expand its services to more White County residents who are uninsured and hurting.



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