Mobile medical van reaches milestone as it provides free health care in East Tennessee
By Gabrielle Nolan
A celebration took place in Crab Orchard on Feb. 28 as St. Mary’s Legacy Clinic celebrated a milestone in its history, 10 years in the making.
For a decade, the clinic has extended the healing ministry of Jesus Christ throughout rural East Tennessee serving the uninsured.
“From the beginning of my time with St. Mary’s Legacy Clinic, what has rung true is that the Lord cares tenderly for the patients that we serve and never fails to provide us with what we need,” said Sister Mary Lisa Renfer of the Religious Sisters of Mercy of Alma, Mich.
“This 10th-year anniversary is a moment to thank the Lord for all He has given us and thank our staff, volunteers, and donors who have made the growth of this clinic possible,” she continued. “We remember with gratitude our beginning, celebrate the gift of being able to serve in this moment, and pray to continue to be faithful to what the Lord asks of us in the future.”
Sister Mary Lisa has served as the medical director for the clinic since July 2020.
“My favorite part of the clinic, hands down, is getting to know the amazing patients we are privileged to care for,” she shared. “They each have a unique story and have often come through significant challenges to get to us. We have the gift of walking with each of them through the ups and downs and provide them the support they need to keep moving forward. It is a privilege and a joy each day I get to see patients with our clinic.”
The medical clinic was founded in February 2013 with Sister Mariana Koonce, RSM, serving as the physician and executive director and heading the diocesan Office of Health Services.
“Sister Mariana, we’re so grateful for her leadership and founding the clinic, and she built such a strong base for us to grow on and to meet the need,” said Martin Vargas, executive director of St. Mary’s Legacy Clinic. “She, in her messaging, talks about seeing the face of Christ in everyone that you meet. And that’s one thing that will never change in our ministry; it will always be the same.”
The clinic marked the Feb. 28 celebration with its induction into the Crossville-Cumberland County Chamber of Commerce.
“We’ve wanted to deepen our relationship with the community,” Mr. Vargas said. “This community, Crab Orchard and the Crossville and Cumberland County area, is the first site that we started serving in January 2014.”
“If you’re an employer, and you don’t offer insurance to your employees, a healthy employee is an awesome employee. Connect them with St. Mary’s Legacy Clinic to get the care that they need so they can be a productive and awesome employee,” he continued. “Being with the chamber allows us to meet those employers. It’s also a way for us to give back to the community that we serve by being part of the community.”
Melanie Graham, office manager for the Chamber of Commerce, was present to give a membership plaque to the St. Mary’s Legacy Clinic, making it the first Catholic organization to join the Chamber of Commerce.
“Cumberland County didn’t know really what they offered, and that they were here, so we’re excited to have that knowledge of them being here so that we can support them and get more people out this way,” Ms. Graham said.
“One of the other things I love about the chamber, in addition to getting the word out, is they can help us find local volunteers,” Mr. Vargas said. “It’s critical in every community that we serve that we have local volunteers.”
‘A great community spirit’
The mobile medical clinic boasts over 90 active volunteers.
“What do you need to be a volunteer of St. Mary’s Legacy Clinic? Only a smile. And if you have that, we have a spot for you,” Mr. Vargas said.
Patty Johnson, a member of St. Francis of Assisi Parish in Fairfield Glade, is a volunteer who has been with the clinic from the beginning. Her journey has come full circle, as she graduated from St. Mary’s School of Nursing in Knoxville in 1962. All these years later, she still loves nursing and enjoys volunteering for the clinic.
“It’s been a wonderful experience and especially to see us grow and for our patients to really get to know us and us really get to know them,” Ms. Johnson said.
She described the patients as “very grateful learners.”
“We have now so many patients that we’re following up on and keeping them with their medications and teaching them how to deal with their conditions,” Mrs. Johnson said. “They really appreciate it, and their health statuses greatly improve, so that’s a wonderful blessing for us to see that happening over the course of the last 10 years.”
Her experience as a volunteer nurse enlivens her faith.
“It helps me to know that God really cares for all His people, that He wants us to be healthy and happy,” she said. “There’s a great community spirit with us working with each other, the volunteers, and with our patients, so I feel that’s what God also wants from us.”
“I feel like I have gained more than I have given, for sure,” she continued. “It’s just been a wonderful blessing to be associated with this and to see the volunteer spirit and to see the caring connections that our doctors have for the patients; it’s just a beautiful thing.”
One of the newest volunteers to the clinic is Megan Rios, a student at Lincoln Memorial University. She celebrated her first day on the clinic’s 10th-anniversary celebration.
“I’m most excited I think about being in a place other than the hospital and seeing a different side of things and just the work that they do in rural communities,” Ms. Rios said. “So, I’m excited about the interactions with smaller towns.”
Medical volunteer positions include medical provider, office nurse, patient education, or triage/medical history.
Some of the non-clinical volunteer opportunities include administrative assistance, clinic drivers, hospitality, registration, cleaning and restocking the clinic or warehouse, and translating.
“There’s a perception that you have to be involved with health care to serve on this team. There are so many opportunities beyond health-care professionals to make an impact,” said Jim Serafin, president of the clinic’s board of directors. “We need many; we need a diverse array of talent.”
“I always look for an opportunity to contribute,” he continued. “I’m not a medical professional, but I do bring other skills. So, that’s why I jumped at the first opportunity I had to try to make an impact…. You learn a lot about how to walk in Jesus’ path, and I can’t think of a better way to do so than through this type of mission.”
‘Growing to meet the need’
With 10 years now behind the St. Mary’s Legacy Clinic, the team is looking forward to the next decade.
Mr. Serafin, a member of All Saints Parish in Knoxville, has been involved with the clinic for two years.
“I was brought on to help them develop a strategic plan for what the next five to 10 years looks like, and through that process we’ve laid out a roadmap for growth to improve the number of community members who don’t have access to health care, to give them an option for holistic care,” Mr. Serafin said.
“On the board of directors, we try to keep an eye on what three years from now looks like in terms of our strategy and improving our outreach to the community and the number of people that we can serve,” he said. “The organization’s amazing, especially behind the scenes in terms of the volunteers on the board itself and the reach we have within the Knoxville area and now as we’re seeing in these other communities.”
“I would like to thank all of our board members for their tireless service to help us,” Mr. Vargas added. “In our October board meeting we found some notes from a 2015 strategy session that the board had held, a retreat, and it was great to see that we had ticked through all the things that they had in that retreat and delivered on them. You can see it reflected in our strategic plan, you can see it as it trickles down to our day-to-day operations.”
Mr. Vargas noted that Tennessee is second in the nation for rural hospital closures.
“When you think about growth, we’re not growing to grow. We’re growing to meet the need,” Mr. Vargas said. “The need is tremendous out there.”
One goal that the team is pursuing is to find property to meet their needs of growth. St. Mary’s Legacy Clinic has been using office space at Divine Mercy Church in Knoxville, but that lease will not be renewed this year.
The clinic will either find a short-term solution of commercial real estate for rent or lease, or a long-term solution of purchasing land that can be built upon.
“I’m praying for someone who has land to donate who could step up and help us there, has a building they could give us access to,” Mr. Vargas said. “If you ask me what answer to prayer looks like, it’s five to eight acres, flat. I know that’s a big ask in East Tennessee—on the periphery of West Knoxville. We don’t need to be in the city, but easy access to the highway would be helpful .”
“Space is a big concern for us,” he added, noting that the clinic does not have the physical space needed to hire more employees. “The process is to get more space to fit the needs of the strategic plan and facilitate our growth so we can serve the people of East Tennessee.”
“We only treat the uninsured, and unfortunately that’s a lot of people in East Tennessee. They all have a different face, you can see the face of Christ in them,” he continued.
Mr. Vargas said they have a “wide diaspora of patients,” from small-business owners to the homeless.
New patients are contacting St. Mary’s Legacy Clinic every day.
“It’s an unfortunate situation with the economy,” Mr. Vargas said. “We’re getting a call a day, so a new patient every day because of the economic situation.”
“They find us through a wide variety of partnerships that we have,” he continued. “And then it’s good, old-fashioned word of mouth…. Just give us a call, and we can help you out and get you on board. Again, our only requirement is that you’re uninsured.”
One patient, Terry, has been coming to the clinic in Crab Orchard for five years.
“They’ve helped me more than anybody has, really. I love coming here because everybody is nice,” he said. “I love coming here because I believe they tell me the truth…. They remember me every time I come.”
Sister Mary Lisa believes that every person, whether a patient or volunteer, is Jesus she meets and serves.
“Our Lord taught us ‘whatever you did for one of these least brothers of mine, you did for me’ (Matthew 25:40),” she said. “Working with the clinic makes this Scripture passage come alive for me. What we strive to do with each patient is to remind them that they have an innate dignity, are loved and cherished, and worthy of the best health care that supports their dignity. That is what it means to be a Catholic clinic.”
“Our patients have an incredible resilience and deep faith that have brought them through many obstacles in life, and hearing their stories and getting to work with them to improve their health boosts my faith and helps me to turn to the Lord in gratitude,” Sister Mary Lisa added.
To learn more about St. Mary’s Legacy Clinic, visit smlcares.com.