By Jim Wogan
The St. Mary’s Legacy Clinic, a 10-wheeled mobile medical ministry operated by the Diocese of Knoxville, will begin serving residents living in fire-ravaged areas near Gatlinburg starting in late April.
“We are trying to meet the needs of the population that’s been there all along, but invisible. Now (because of the fires) they are sort of more exposed,” said the clinic’s medical director, Sister Mariana Koonce, RSM, MD.
The initial challenge for her mostly volunteer staff, and for Father Antony Punnackal, CMI, pastor of St. Mary Parish in Gatlinburg, will be coordinating a schedule for uninsured patients seeking medical care.
“In short, even before (these fires) there was a great need (for medical care) in this area,” Father Punnackal said. “I am very happy (the clinic) will be coming to our community.”
So far, more than 30 parishioners from St. Mary Parish have placed their names on a list to be seen by the clinic staff. On a typical day, the clinic can accommodate 10-12 patients. Father Punnackal is working with Sister Mariana to create a workable schedule.
The St. Mary’s clinic began service in 2014 and currently serves patients in five rural communities in the Diocese of Knoxville — Athens, Crab Orchard, Decatur, Rutledge, and Washburn. The clinic visits Crab Orchard twice a month. All other communities are visited once a month.
Most of the clients Sister Mariana sees in those communities aren’t Catholic. While the initial steps of the Gatlinburg program, and prioritizing patient schedules, are still being developed, it is Sister Mariana’s hope that the clinic can serve many uninsured patients in Sevier and Cocke Counties — Catholic and non-Catholic alike.
“I would expect it to be about as busy (as our other clinic stops). Our history has been we’re never as busy as we think we’re going to be, but then we grow into it,” Sister Mariana said.
The clinic logs more than 5,700 miles each year. Sister Mariana says it has had more than 1,200 patient visits since 2014. Eighteen to 20 percent of the patients she sees live in poverty.
Until now, the St. Mary’s Legacy Clinic has visited communities designated “medically underserved” by the federal government. Gatlinburg doesn’t fall into that designation, but in the aftermath of the deadly and destructive wildfires, Bishop Richard F. Stika and Father David Boettner, a vicar general for the diocese, asked Sister Mariana to investigate whether the St. Mary’s Legacy Clinic could help.
Following a visit to assist in wildfire relief and to see patients in Pigeon Forge in early December, Sister Mariana recommended the clinic schedule regular monthly visits in Gatlinburg — expanding its reach to six communities in the diocese.
“The timing is right to add another site,” she said.