Vanessa Garcia of Fennville, training to be a nurse at Grand valley State University, volunteered her time at the free clinic, shown above taking United Way board president Heather Boswell’s blood pressure. (Photo by Ryan Lewis)
For a few hours on Saturday, May 7, Fennville High School was a free medical clinic.
That brief transformation was due to an Allegan County United Way effort to create a Volunteer Medical Corps to serve the underinsured, something organizers believe is the first of its kind in the state.
Using a $49,000 Volunteer Michigan grant, the largest of seven awarded throughout the state, the United Way purchased electronic medical records software, laptop computers and iPads and four portable exam tables in the lead-up to organizing the one-day free clinic.
United Way volunteer coordinator Karen Hancock-Owen said 32 individuals were given medical treatments between the clinic’s 9 a.m.-to-5 a.m. hours, though many more received ancillary services for needs such as family planning and mental health. The effort’s 76 volunteers were prepared to provide services for as many as 100 patients.
“It went wonderfully,” Hancock-Owen said. “People came in throughout the day.”
She said that in some cases, the clinic was able to provide help for more immediate problems.
“One person found out they had pneumonia; we were able to set them up with medication,” Hancock-Owen said. The student concession area by the school gym served as a pharmacy for the day, stocked with sample packs of medications provided by area medical establishments. “A family with strep throat came in, and we were able to treat them.”
Allegan County Health Department’s medical director, Dr. Rick Tooker, volunteered his time during the clinic and said it served to educate the patients.
“We’re trying to help them understand when they really “We’re trying to help them understand when they really need to seek medical help,” he said. “It’s a teachable moment.”
Tooker said that, for example, he could advise someone on what to do with a skin rash; he would describe which symptoms should prompt them to go to seek a medical professional. That kind of advice is important, he said, as many who need it can’t afford too many visits to the doctor.
In many other cases, Tooker said the clinic treated people who had run out of their medication; in other words, they already knew what was wrong. In these cases, the clinic served to supply them with a temporary refill.
Hancock-Owen said another major goal of the clinic was to begin an assessment of the rural health needs in the county and set up a Volunteer Medical Corps to provide health care for those who cannot afford it.
Hancock-Owen said it was hard to nail down the county’s needs with such a small sample, but the event still provided useful information.
“Some came in with diabetes, some of it already diagnosed; quite a few came in with dental needs, but we anticipated that,” Hancock-Owen said. “What really struck me was that there were entire families who came in who hadn’t seen a service provider in a number of years.”
She said patients hailed from all parts of the county, though the majority were from the Fennville and Pullman area.
Hancock-Owen said follow-up care patients receive is key, and the United Way is still looking at how that will be accomplished.
Options include providing transportation to a local doctor’s office or directing individuals to attend another of the Corps’s mobile clinics.
“At this point it looks like we’ll have to do a little of both,” she said. “Maybe it means we come up with some kind of mobile medical nursing service, because transportation is so crucial.
“If you have no insurance and no transportation, you don’t get serviced with the care you need.”
“We’ve started referring some to Intercare (in Pullman) and some to Seeds of Grace (a free clinic in Allegan). We’re trying to find medical homes for everyone.”
The Corps’s next one-day free clinic will be Saturday, Oct. 22, although there are no other details nailed down yet, including its location.
“We do know we’d love to beef up the dental component. We know there’s a huge need,” Hancock-Owen said. Fennville dentist office Lakeshore Smiles attended the clinic in Fennville but only did evaluations for care. As in recent years, Lakeshore Smiles will provide another free day of dentistry on Sept. 15.
The October event and others will be able to happen whether or not funding is renewed for the next two years of the grant.
“Without it, we will still be able to do a smaller scale. We’ve basically covered startup costs,” Hancock-Owen said.
They have applied for the same amount they received this year but are waiting just as every other grantee is to see how federal budget shakes out.
She said, “We’ll still have the Volunteer Medical Corps; we have the staffing figured out. All our volunteers want to come back next time and help.
Volunteers are still needed, however, and she especially encouraged health care providers to sign up for the corps. For information on how to do so, call the United Way at (269) 673-6545, ext. 13.