Mini health event attracts people from Cleveland area as well as from out of state
By Janice Fritz-Ryken
Imagine what life would be like if your only option for health care meant sleeping overnight in your car in a church parking lot for the possibility to be seen at a free, mobile clinic a few hours away from where you live.
For some of America’s underserved, uninsured people, waiting hours to be treated is a reality and often the only option, especially after enduring years of painful toothaches, poor eyesight or an unmanaged case of diabetes. Even sadder is the fact there are many such Americans living right here in the greater Chattanooga area.
In April, however, these people had access to free, high-quality health care, thanks to an annual event hosted by the Health Ministry of St. Thérèse of Lisieux Church in Cleveland. The event was a mobile health clinic administered by Remote Area Medical (RAM), a volunteer medical corps made up of hundreds of medical and non-medical professionals who provide free, onsite medical, vision and dental care and screenings for people who rarely get the chance to see a doctor or dentist due to lack of insurance or inadequate coverage.
By the break of dawn on April 27, hundreds of people eager to be seen by doctors, dentists or nurses were already lined up when the large, white RAM trucks carrying medical equipment pulled onto the church grounds.
“It’s quite overwhelming to see that people have camped out in their cars the night before, for hours. It sure makes me feel thankful,” said Sherry Park, a long-time parishioner at St. Thérèse, who has helped coordinate the free medical clinics since her parish first became a sponsor/ host site in 2008.
Ms. Park said she loves being part of the RAM mobile events because it gives her a chance to give something back to her community.
“When I see the crowds of people who must rely on clinics for the most basic health-care needs, I am always humbled,” Ms. Park said. “We often take the littlest things for granted, the very things that would be blessings to these people.”
Ms. Park said RAM and St. Thérèse have worked very well together on these health-care clinics and that she’s always happy to play a part in it.
One such participant who finds the RAM clinic a blessing is Doris Schulthe, a disabled Cleveland resident and St. Thérèse parishioner in her 60s. She said the RAM clinic is a godsend.
“This is truly a blessing for those of us with low income or fixed budgets because otherwise we’d have to wait and save up a very long time for things like glasses or dental work,” Ms. Schulthe said.
“I just can’t afford the AARP supplemental insurance and I also can’t afford to pay thousands of dollars for the dental work I know I need.”
“I don’t drive, so I have to rely on the goodness of others to get me anywhere. But no matter how much of a challenge it is to get there, I try to never miss the clinics,” she added, “because they’re just too important to me.”
Ms. Schulthe said she nearly missed this opportunity when the neighbor who offered to drive her to the clinic became ill with pneumonia the night before the event. But thankfully another neighbor was able to get her to the clinic.
“God always sends angels,” Ms. Schulthe said.
As she sat and waited her turn to have an eye exam, Ms. Schulthe praised the RAM clinic, saying the care she has received through the last eight years has been far and above what one might expect for a free clinic.
“Every last doctor I’ve ever seen has been great to talk to,” she said. “They’re kind and caring and they never treat me as if I were not a paying patient.”
On this sunny Friday, Ms. Schulthe was happy to have her teeth cleaned and she admitted to being very eager to have her first eye exam in years. She said the struggle to get there was worth it because it boosted her morale.
“I feel like a new woman. It was a very busy morning and it took a lot to get me here but it’s worth it. I had my teeth cleaned and it’ll be so nice to get some good eyeglasses again, too. It’s been so hard for me to see what’s going on during Mass,” she said laughing. “I can’t tell you how much I appreciate these clinics.”
Ms. Park said that’s a sentiment she hears a lot and that the patients who come to the clinics have been so thankful that some of them are almost in tears.
“We take for granted having regular access to doctors and dentists. These people are so grateful; they honestly can’t believe they’re getting it all for free. Many have stood in line and waited for hours, even days before we’ve even opened up,” said Ms. Park, who noted that people travel from all over for these events.
“People come from as far away as Memphis, Georgia, Alabama, and the Carolinas, and they’re out there before we’ve even set up,” she said.
As people were lining up outside, St. Thérèse parishioner Roger Rutz, a member of Knights of Columbus Council 4572, was inside setting up tables and chairs and basically transforming the entire parish life center gymnasium into an onsite medical clinic. He kept plenty busy during the event, too, directing traffic as he kept long lines orderly and provided support to doctors, nurses and dentists as well as crowd support. Rutz said he, too, enjoyed the interaction with the community.
“People are so happy to be here to get the medical attention they need, and I enjoy talking with them as they wait,” said Mr. Rutz, who noted that the camaraderie among patients waiting patiently was touching. “It’s people helping people.”
RAM Clinic Manager Ron Brewer was pleased with the turnout, adding that in the last eight years at St. Thérèse alone approximately 6,000 people have benefited from the free RAM mobile clinics put on at St. Thérèse.
“I’m never surprised by how many people are waiting for us,” Mr. Brewer said. “With the crisis we have regarding health-care coverage across the country, it’s no wonder we’re so needed.”
Mr. Brewer estimated that RAM clinics, founded in 1985 and with more than 84,000 volunteers and health-care professionals, have provided more than $75 million worth of free medical care in more than 700 mobile clinics to more than 545,000 patients across the country.
“RAM’s mission is simple: we want to prevent pain and alleviate suffering by providing free quality health care to those in need,” said Mr. Brewer, who pointed out that volunteers put the needs of the patients first. He added that it’s the volunteers who make these mobile clinics a success and noted that 95 percent of people who come to the clinics need vision and dental care.
“A toothache is more than just a toothache; if left untreated for too long it can be hazardous to their health, causing blood poisoning or heart attacks,” he said.
“From dental cleanings, fillings and extractions, to free glasses, eye exams and glaucoma testing, the RAM mobile clinics just give people a better quality of life at no cost to them,” he continued.
“Many people we see, well, they can afford a little bit of insurance, maybe, on the medical side, but dental insurance and vision insurance, that’s an extra rider on their policy and once they see the price, well, there goes the groceries or there goes the house rent. So they’ll let their teeth and their vision go and it’s really quite heartwarming to hear the stories,” Mr. Brewer said.
Equally appreciative for the opportunity to help others in need of medical services is registered nurse Tabitha Payne, who works for the Bradley County Health Department. Ms. Payne finds that donating her time at the RAM clinic is fulfilling, no matter how long the hours are or how demanding the job may be.
“Knowing we’re providing a service that people can’t afford to pay for is worth more than a paycheck,” Ms. Payne said. “Every day, I see young, single women who are expecting babies and need all the support they can get. I also see elderly women who probably might never be able to have the annual screenings they should be getting at their ages because of their fixed incomes. The need for this kind of health-care service is universal.”
What it comes down to is simple, according to Mr. Brewer. “We just want to make their lives better, and we can do it through these free clinics. From dental cleanings, fillings and extractions, to free glasses, eye exams and glaucoma testing, the RAM mobile clinics just give people a better quality of life at no cost to them.”
For Father Mike Nolan, St. Thérèse of Lisieux pastor, the clinic is an important ministry for the parish and the community.
“While this is the Jubilee Year of Mercy declared by Pope Francis, the corporal works of mercy, such as welcoming strangers or caring for the sick, are practices that we Catholics are called to perform year in and year out,” Father Nolan said. “I want to emphasize that this was not a one-time event; we have been offering it for eight years, and it’s important that people know we will continue to offer the RAM clinics in the future. Anyone in need or who knows of anyone in need is most certainly welcome at our parish.” ■