Doing something for the greater good

St. Thérèse of Lisieux parishioner said ‘yes’ to God and organized Cleveland’s RAM clinic

By Janice Fritz-Ryken

One night in 2004, Terry Peters was in a car heading back to her Cleveland home with friends after spending a weekend volunteering at her first Remote Area Medical (RAM) event in Knoxville when she felt what she described as a gentle nudge from the Holy Spirit.

She had witnessed so many less-fortunate people whose day was made better by being seen, free of charge, by medical, dental, and vision professionals, many for the first time in years. It was humbling and uplifting at the same time. She felt good to have been a part of it. So, she made a comment that would change her life.

“We should do something like that here in Cleveland,” she heard herself saying. “Plenty of people right here in our area could use some free health care.”

Ms. Peters said her friends in the car, all nurses, began to laugh at her, saying she had no idea what it would take to facilitate something like that in Cleveland.

Could she imagine how much work it would be and what it would take to find that many volunteer medical professionals? And what about logistics? They would need to have a place large enough to hold hundreds of patients; a way to sterilize instruments; they would need to round up doctors, nurses, dentists, and optometrists willing to donate their time and services.

People come from miles around and even several states away, and camp out all night to be examined by medical professionals. Where would they even hold such an event?

Still, even as they dismissed her, Ms. Peters said she sat quietly in the car, listening to her inner voice. At first, she tried to ignore it. Then she reasoned with it.

“I said, ‘Oh no, no, don’t make me go there, it would be so overwhelming, just way too much work to even try,’” Ms. Peters said. “But as my friends continued to list all the reasons it couldn’t be done, I sat quietly and listened. For each valid point they made against it, I silently heard the Holy Spirit disagreeing with it. The more they explained how difficult it would be, how we couldn’t possibly ever do something like that here, the louder the Holy Spirit persisted and said, ‘Yes you can.’”

Finally, Ms. Peters, 66, said she could ignore it no longer. She took a leap of faith and said “Yes,” and with that one yes, her “fiat” snowballed, leading to the very first Cleveland/Bradley County RAM clinic in 2005.

The health ministry of her parish, St. Thérèse of Lisieux, has been the lead organizer for the Cleveland/Bradley County RAM clinic ever since. Ms. Peters says that one experience has taught her an important life lesson.

“If you feel called to do something for the greater good, then just say yes to the Lord. He’ll give you what you need to accomplish it,” said Ms. Peters, who insists on not taking credit for bringing RAM to Cleveland. “God did it all, I was just the vessel, but only because I said yes.”

Today, except for a few years when she was caring for her ailing elderly parents, Ms. Peters said she has been pleased to be a part of every RAM clinic that comes to Cleveland.

“It’s a lot of work, just as I’d imagined when I first got the notion, but it’s by far the most rewarding work as well,” Ms. Peters said. “To see how many people are helped by this clinic is edifying and it makes us all feel so good to be able to facilitate it. It’s definitely worth all the work.”

Remote Area Medical is a nonprofit provider of mobile health clinics whose mission is to provide free, quality health care to those in need. They do this by delivering free dental, vision, and medical services to underserved and uninsured individuals.

RAM’s corps of more than 135,000 volunteers, including licensed medical, dental, vision, and even veterinarian professionals, have treated more than 785,000 people and 68,000 animals, delivering $135 million worth of free health care since 1985.

The 14th annual event returned to Cleveland the weekend of June 1, and coordinators Jane Hubbard and Sherry Park say that while they had lower than normal patient care that required doctors this year, the clinic still saw 545 patients and delivered $317,811 worth of services. Ms. Hubbard said there was a slightly higher demand for dental and vision care this year.

“Not too bad for a small band of ecumenical and civic-minded folks,” laughed Ms. Hubbard, who said she has watched the clinics attract increasing crowds through the years.

By being open to the public and not requiring identification or payment, the RAM clinics draw people from several neighboring states each year.

This year was no exception. Robert Adams, 53, probably came the farthest, traveling from Detroit to have his teeth worked on.

“It was worth the 10-hour drive to have my teeth fixed,” he said. “I was quoted $22,000 by a local dentist for what I need to have done. I lost my ability to work after I nearly died in a really bad car wreck several years ago, and now I am older and underemployed and pretty much all of my teeth have all gone bad.”

Sitting in line with Mr. Adams was Flonnie Blaker, who drove in from Blue Ridge, Ga., the night before and waited out the night in the school parking lot, where she saw hundreds of people already camped out. Ms. Baker was eager to get what she called “much needed dental work” done.

“I’ve been putting a lot off for years, I can’t wait to get in. I’m grateful it’s not as humid as it’s been and that it didn’t rain,” she said, pointing out that the mood on the grounds of Cleveland High School was friendly and relaxed.

“People are usually calm and friendly. We all know there will be lines, but people appreciate the services, and everyone just finds a way to make it go by while we wait. Sometimes we even share our stories and help each other out as our kids need help,” she said as she helped hold the newborn baby of another mom who was waiting for a mammogram as she changed her older toddler into cooler clothes. “Everyone here helps each other out. It’s been nice.”

For dental instructor Sonya Sims of Chattanooga State Community College, RAM clinics teach more than just dental training for her students. Ms. Sims said those students get practical, hands-on experience doing extractions and fillings, but they also learn other valuable life lessons when they volunteer.

“They get the actual experience of working on teeth, of course, which is always great, but it’s the one-on-one with these patients and hearing the stories of people who may not have been able to care for their teeth as well as us. It’s humbling and it teaches these future dentists to have compassion, as well. I want them to learn their stories,” Ms. Sims said.

One such story was that of lifelong Cleveland resident Linda Durham, 57, who is a pool cleaner and lives off her Social Security insurance. Ms. Durham, who pointed out that she went to Cleveland High School, said laughing, “I never thought I’d be walking through these doors again, it’s been years and years.”

Ms. Durham told Ms. Sims that although she had saved enough money to buy dentures, she needed to have eight teeth pulled, but she just couldn’t afford all those extractions.

“She’d been carrying around those new dentures for months, in a baggie,” Ms. Sims said. “It’s humbling, to say the least.”

But for Ms. Durham, waiting for hours to be treated at the clinic is worth it; she’ll be leaving the clinic with a new smile.

“I worked really hard to save up this money for my dentures and I’m so excited that I’ll finally be able to wear them. I walked in carrying these dentures in this plastic sandwich bag, and tonight I’ll walk out of here with my brand-new smile,” she said, adding that her children and grandchildren were waiting for her to come home wearing her new dentures.

“They’re all so excited to see my real smile. I’m always trying to hide my teeth,” she explained. “I’ll have to get used to really smiling again.”

Ms. Durham said knowing the RAM clinic returns each spring is like having insurance. She likely will be back next year if she needs any vision, medical, or dental services.

“It’s so nice to know I can come back again next year if I need to; everyone here’s been so nice and I felt like I was welcome,” she said.

If she returns, she won’t be alone. Rhesa Phillips from Allons, Tenn., said this was the seventh year in a row that either she or family members have returned to Cleveland to get much-needed medical, dental, or vision care from the RAM clinic.

“It’s a godsend to be able to come down here for things we’d usually have to pay hundreds of dollars for, if not much more than that,” Ms. Phillips said. “Whoever started the clinic, well, he or she must be heaven-sent.”

That person who was “heaven-sent” was Stan Brock, a pioneer bush and transport pilot with ties to Tennessee who is probably best known as the co-host of NBC’s Emmy-winning series, Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom, one of the most watched television shows in the country in the late 1960s, with more than 32 million weekly viewers.

In 1985, he founded Remote Area Medical after seeing such a need while traveling the world. He continued to serve, without compensation, as RAM’s founder and president until his passing last year. Because of his work with RAM, Mr. Brock has been recognized as a pioneer in bringing free health care to people in need.

Mr. Brock was instrumental in the passage of the Tennessee Volunteer Health Care Services Act of 1995, which allows health professionals with out-of-state licenses to cross state lines and provide free care. He was recognized as a CNN Hero in 2012, and most recently, in 2017, he joined the ranks of other prominent leaders like President Jimmy Carter and Mother Teresa when the Lions Club International Foundation recognized him with the Lions International Humanitarian Award.

RAM’s work has been covered by national and international news media including 60 Minutes on CBS, Nightline on ABC, The New York Times, The Washington Post, Time magazine, The Guardian, and The Times of London.

Mr. Brock passed away at the age of 82 in Rockford, Tenn., where RAM is based, on Aug. 29, 2018, after dedicating 33 years to his beloved organization.

The Cleveland RAM Clinics are usually held at St. Thérèse of Lisieux Church in Cleveland, but this year the venue was changed to Cleveland High School. St. Thérèse’s health ministry continued to organize the RAM clinic. Father Mike Nolan, pastor of St. Thérèse, said that although Mr. Brock is gone, his spirit lives on in so many of the St. Thérèse parishioners who work tirelessly to bring the RAM clinic back to Cleveland each year.

“I’m so happy there are people here at our parish who truly heeded God’s call and who understood God’s command that we love one another and who don’t mind putting in the work it takes to bring this to our community,” Father Nolan said.

“These are corporal works of mercy that are badly needed and greatly appreciated by those who are here to receive them,” he noted, adding the words of St. Thérèse, patroness of his parish.

“St. Thérèse said, ‘Holiness consists simply in doing God’s will and being just what God wants us to be.’ And what He wants us to be is to be there for those in need, in whatever capacity. This annual clinic definitely fills a huge need here in Cleveland,” Father Nolan said.

He added that Pope Francis recently said “the Church is not a sanctuary for saints, it’s a hospital for sinners,” and that we are all called in various ways to minister to those in need.

Many St. Thérèse parishioners took part, doing everything from facilitating crowds, helping with intake of patients and paperwork, to cooking for and serving the many medical volunteers. Knights of Columbus Ladies’ Auxiliary members were on hand as well.

The good that comes from being served at RAM clinics seems to spark a desire in former patients to serve others in the same manner.

Cleveland resident and St. Thérèse health ministry facilitator Sherry Park said many doctors, dentists, and optometrists are very passionate about working in the RAM clinics.

“Even those who are retired will still donate their time and resources to come help out, and we also have many former patients who like to return and volunteer as a way of giving back,” Ms. Park said.

One such man is Robert Drayton Brown of Valley View, Tenn., who was a patient in a dentist chair at a Cleveland RAM Clinic more than eight years ago.

“I was in a whole mess of pain, and I heard about RAM clinic in Cleveland. I waited for many hours in some very hot weather, and that day I had several teeth pulled, but the terrible pain went away immediately and I was so grateful. It was such a blessing,” Mr. Brown said.

But Mr. Brown said he was raised to work for what he gets and that he believes in giving back to his community. So he now comes back to volunteer at the clinic every year. In June, he brought his dog, Buster Brown, along as a service dog.

“My folks taught me that you should always give back to your community. I don’t have much money, but what I do have is time, so whatever they need, I’m always happy to give back to this clinic. You’ll see Buster and I back here working the crowds again next year,” he said.

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