Photos Cameron Flaisch
Imagine waking up one morning and feeling as if your heart is beating out of your chest. You sit on the side of the bed, but your legs are too shaky to stand. If you were to stand you would probably fall.
A visit to the Emergency Room would give you the help you so desperately need, but you hesitate because you don’t have insurance. An expensive visit to the ER can put a dent in the household budget. Even the cost of a copay would mean one less bag of groceries for you and your family.
Money is short, insurance is incredibly expensive, and you are extremely sick. You come to the conclusion that you just can’t go to the doctor.
This is the reality of over 18 percent of Romans and residents of surrounding counties. They are dealing with the dilemma of having no insurance.
The volunteers at the Free Clinic of Rome (101-B John Maddox Drive Rome, Ga.) witness these situations daily and have for the past 15 years.
“Our mission statement here at the Free Clinic is to provide quality primary healthcare to uninsured, low income residents in Rome and its surrounding counties. We try to live by that mantra every second our doors are open,” says Renee Blackburn, Executive Director of the Free Clinic of Rome.
Blackburn and the Free Clinic’s volunteer professionals commit their life’s work to making sure that the 18 percent of uninsured people in our community have access to basic healthcare needs.
The Free Clinic of Rome was first organized back in 2003, when four local churches and their community kitchens got together and discussed how they could help provide people without insurance access to medical care here in Rome.
Food and shelter weren’t the only dire needs many of their guests required, but access to healthcare, too. With a mission in mind, local physicians and healthcare providers started seeing patients in a closet-sized clinic at the Salvation Army once a month. They continued to see patients in that same closet for the next several years.
“The first clinic was literally stuffed in a closet in the Salvation Army headquarters,” recalls Blackburn. “As the clinic began to grow, the Free Clinic of Rome was officially formed.”
The Free Clinics newest board member, Joseph Chavez also remembers the early years of the clinic. “When I first started volunteering here, I remember hearing stories about how our first clinic was kept in a supply closet at the Salvation Army. Everything was taken out of storage and set up for the clinic, then stuffed back in again until the next month. We have definitely come a long way,” smiles Chavez.
In 2006, the Free Clinic of Rome became a corporation and in 2007, a 501(c)3 not-for-profit company. The year of 2018 was the Free Clinic of Rome’s fifteenth anniversary.
Having served as executive director for two and a half years, Blackburn truly feels as if she has found her calling.
“My grandparents raised my mother here in Rome, I was raised here and I am raising my children here. This is my community,” says Blackburn. “There comes a time in your career when you think to yourself, what is more important? Community is extremely important to me. When I was a nurse, I decided that putting a dime in someone’s pocket was not how I wanted to serve my community. I wanted to do something that is more of a mission and a ministry for the people of my community. That is my passion, and this is how I want to impact my community.”
Currently, the Free Clinic of Rome’s patient base is around 400 uninsured patients and growing.
“Thanks to grants and support from local donors, we are planning on expanding by one third this year, which constitutes to us adding around 140 new patients,” smiles Blackburn.
Redmond Regional Medical Center, Floyd Medical Center and Harbin Clinic have always supported the Free Clinic in numerous ways. Residents from both programs volunteer to see patients at the clinic, as well as run lab work for Free Clinic patients.
While the number of patients served keeps growing, board members are well aware that the needs far outweigh the capabilities of the small clinic. However, they are determined to keep pressing forward, with the help of their community.
“This community keeps us upright and has done enough to keep us alive and kicking this long, which is great,” says Blackburn.
As expected, a lot of people assume that the Free Clinic of Rome solely serves the homeless. It is true that their mission and the founding of the Free Clinic came from a heart for the homeless and for serving those who are in dire need of medical care.
“What we see a lot of times now- and we do still see a good many homeless- is a lot of people in fast food uniforms, people who just took off their big box apron or uniforms, and people who can’t afford the insurance their employers offer to them,” explains Blackburn. “We see those that are self-employed with seasonal jobs that ebb and flow, and they cannot sustain the high insurance premiums of medication costs. Those are our patients.”
One of the things staff and volunteers of the Free Clinic stress is the fact that they do not receive any state or federal tax dollars to help aid their practice.
“The Free Clinic is not a ‘free’ program from the government,” stresses Blackburn. “It is a mission founded by the neighbors that live, work and worship in the same community as the patients served. Our donors and volunteers care for our patients because we are all part of the same community. Just because you see your neighbor leave for work every day, doesn’t mean they are going to a job that provides them with insurance.”
“The Free Clinic was founded because volunteers knew there was a need. Our success story continues because of local churches, businesses and individual supporters commit to assuring our doors stay open and our patients receive the care, medication and education they need,” says Blackburn.
Along with Blackburn, who is a registered nurse, the Free Clinic of Rome consists of physician volunteers, residents who are going through their fellowship at our local hospitals, medical students and college volunteers. They also staff several very talented organizational administrative office volunteers.
“One of the things I like to tell people about our clinic is that it is amazing how well-orchestrated we are, as far as filling a lot of needs,” says Blackburn. “The mission was to help those in need of healthcare, but the truth is we have found out there are many more benefits to it. One of those benefits happens to be the education of our college students.
“We have volunteers who are in nursing school or are pre-med students who have never put a stethoscope to a patient’s chest or used a blood pressure cuff while taking vital signs, etc. When you are in school for medicine and you haven’t had any hands-on experience, that is a lot of time and commitment to put into a degree and realize this isn’t what you really want to do,” explains Blackburn. “We are helping a lot of folks with hands on and shadowing experience.”
Chavez is currently studying to enter the Physician’s Assistant program and happened to run across a former volunteer who introduced him to Blackburn and the clinic.
“I was essentially just looking for volunteer experience, but I found so much more than that,” says Chavez.
What he found was a family unit full of people who care more about their patients than they do themselves, which is what led him to becoming an Executive Committee Member for the Free Clinic of Rome.
“We still have board members who were founders of the Clinic back in 2003. It truly takes them all and we are s grateful for all they do” says Blackburn.
So, how would an uninsured patient apply to the Free Clinic of Rome, you may ask?
“When someone comes in to be a new patient, there will be a few questions we ask. We will ask, if you are insured. Next, we will ask if you live in Rome or a surrounding county. The last thing we need to know is a future patient’s financial ability,” explains Blackburn.
“We serve those who are 200 percent or below poverty levels,” she continues. “We do this because when it comes to providing medicines, it is important to make sure our patients can get what they need.”
“It doesn’t do any good for our doctors to see a patient and prescribe them a medicine that they cannot afford. We keep our levels at 200 percent or below because we have the ability to enroll our patients in Pharmaceutical Assistance Programs (PAP), where the majority of the programs have that same line in order to qualify,” says Blackburn.
The Free Clinic also utilizes local retailers like Wal-Mart and Publix who have medications that may be provided at little to no cost. The clinic also writes grants to help cover medication costs, as well as receives donations from local physicians and hospitals.
“Here in Rome, we are considered a medically saturated community where we are fortunate enough to pick and choose which healthcare facility we want to attend in times of need, if you have insurance. If you are uninsured, then you still are an important part of this community and deserve quality healthcare. We help those people because they deserve the strength of our medical community,” says Blackburn.
One example of the Free Clinic’s workings was portrayed in a very unfortunate, but true story.
“We recently had a patient come in with several things bothering her; however, one of the main things she complained about was a toothache. We sent her to our dental clinic where they were prepared to do an extraction. Before they began, the students took an X-ray and when the volunteer dentist took a look at it, he knew instantly there was nothing he could do about it,” says Blackburn.
There was a huge lesion on the tooth, and without being able to diagnose it, the volunteers at the clinic were unsure if it was cancerous or not.
“Once that happened, we had a sit down with her and let her know about her options. She would need more help than we could give her; I remember her leaving the clinic in tears,” recalls Blackburn as she fights back tears while telling the story. “At 9 a.m. the next morning, I met with a physician and within 72 hours, we were able to reach out to the community and our resources here, and have her admitted through an ER to the hospital for a full work-up. We needed to see what is going on.
“It was one of those things where, you think you are just doing a good deed by doing a simple tooth extraction. But instead, you end up saving someone’s life. And she came to the right place for the right resources to fall in place for her,” says Blackburn.
In addition to their increase of new patients, the Free Clinic of Rome now offers a once-a-month dental clinic to its patients.
Bill Carroll, past Free Clinic Board President, has been an integral part in this process. By working to partner with Georgia Highlands College’s Dental Hygiene Program, the students see patients in Heritage Hall’s campus lab, take X-rays and assist local dentists who all volunteer at the clinic.
The clinic was awarded a grant through the Community Foundation of Greater Rome which allowed them to open their dental clinic on January 31st of 2019.
“The addition of the dental clinic is just one more way you see the community supporting the Free Clinic and its mission. We couldn’t be more grateful for everyone’s support,” smiles Blackburn.
The Free Clinic of Rome’s patients, volunteers and staff always appreciate generous donations, great or small. While monetary donations are essential for daily operations, donations such as paper products, office supplies and cleaning supplies are used on a daily basis and are always needed.
“We have the ability to take one donated dollar and turn it into ten dollars’ worth of healthcare services because of the volunteers we have and the services they provide,” says Blackburn. “In 2017, expenses that came out of our bank account totaled to around $107,000. But, we were able to provide over one-million dollars’ worth of healthcare to our patients,” says Blackburn, which completely sums up the consumption and necessity of the Free Clinic of Rome.
The Free Clinic board members wish to convey how thankful they are for the kindness and support that is regularly shown for the clinic. Collectively, they wish to convey their sentiments regarding donors’ role in supporting the Free Clinic.
“This is a mission that fills our hearts with joy, and we wish health, happiness and prosperity to both those that support is and those we serve,” says the Free Clinic.
Providing opportunities to people in our community who get sick, lack insurance and have no money to pay for expensive medical procedures is a cause worth pursuing. Through the hard work and many hours spent treating those without insurance, we are lucky to have an organization who believes that everyone deserves access to healthcare.
The Free Clinic of Rome is open on Mondays from 8:30 AM until 12:30 PM for lab-work only, and then from 4:30 PM until the last patient is seen; Tuesdays from 8:30 AM-12:30 PM; Thursdays from 8:30 AM-12:30 PM and then from 4:30 PM until the last patient is seen.