Free Clinic Pays Off

Published 4:19 pm Thursday, October 25, 2012

Farmville's Heart of Virginia Free Clinic has a name that reflects a mission. For the volunteers and medical professionals who spend their evenings seeing patients there, the “heart” obviously stands for labor of love. To the medically uninsured, the “free” in Free Clinic is more than dollars and cents – it means freedom from fear of pain or serious illness. At this clinic patients are seen by a doctor and are given medication that they otherwise could not afford to buy. For some, it may be a matter of life or death.

On the Free Clinic's opening night last April, Mary Ann Pruitt, FNP, nurse practitioner at Crewe Medical Center, was on hand to see patients. Her husband, Dr. David Pruitt, medical director of the Heart of Virginia Free Clinic, was also there.

“David and I were the opening night,” Pruitt said with a smile.

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The smiles and warm greetings from patients waiting to be seen that night, Pruitt added, was another affirmation of the Clinic's choice of names.

“It was heart-warming,” she recalled.

The care patients receive might be described in the same way.

“One of my patients had been laid of from his job and was without insurance for three or four months,” Pruitt related.

The patient was diabetic and hypertensive and had been without his medications for four months.

“When this patient came in to see Pat Payne for his eligibility interview he had a whole list of medications that he had been taking,” Pruitt added. “Pat called me at home to tell me that she had a patient with blood pressure almost at stroke level. We actually started him back on the medicines he was on before he was even seen at the clinic.”

Without the Free Clinic, this patient might have had a stroke – or worse.

“You saved my life,” the man told Pruitt in a follow-up visit recently.

“I just gave him the medicine he needed,” Pruitt stated matter-of-factly. “It was on the $4 list at Wal-Mart.”

Saving a life with a $4 prescription seemed like a reasonable equation to Pat Payne.

A registered nurse who worked in the emergency room for 18 years, Payne was the impetus for organizing a group of local citizens who met to discuss the possibility of a free clinic in Farmville.

“When I worked in the ER, one of the doctors told me that 70 percent of the people who go to the emergency room aren't emergencies,” Payne related.

For those who can't afford a visit to the doctor, however, the ER is often the only place to go. Payne envisioned a clinic that would provide medical care those who had lost their jobs or those working several part time jobs without benefits and could not afford to buy insurance.

“We're trying to help those people who are slipping through the cracks,” she added.

From a medical standpoint, even one uninsured patient's medical care affects the community as a whole.

“If the gentleman with the stroke level blood pressure had a stroke, that would impact the community,” Pruitt observed. “Without the Free Clinic he would have gone to the ER, and never would have been able to pay that off. Then, he might never be able to go back to work and would end up on disability – that affects the community.”

To Pruitt, the free clinic solution makes perfect sense.

“All the man needed was blood pressure medicine on the $4 list at Wal-Mart,” she added.

The current economic situation, Pruitt noted, also adds physical stresses, especially when a workplace environment changes from a sedentary to a strenuous one.

“There are people who have been in executive type positions that are now working as housekeepers,” Pruitt noted. “They're doing hard menial labor that's putting new stresses on their bodies.”

Farmville's Free Clinic was modeled after the other 62 free clinics in the state of Virginia. First, a prospective patient must come in for an interview to determine eligibility.

“We take people ages 18 to 64,” Payne said. “There is an interview to determine eligibility.”

Income is a major determining factor.

“For one person living alone, an income of $21,780 or less will qualify,” Payne explained.

Interviews are conducted on Tuesday nights and Wednesday afternoons. Patients are seen by appointment only; there are no walk-ins.

“We've got a caseload of 90 patients now, and we see new ones every week,” Payne noted. “We've had over 200 appointments so far.”

The Rev. Sylvia Meadows, pastor of Farmville United Methodist Church and president of the Clinic's Board of Directors, was impressed by the genuine sense of gratitude expressed by patients at the Free Clinic.

“These people are so very grateful,” Rev. Meadows observed. “They know that they're getting services and medicines that they had no hope of receiving.”

“One lady I treated at the Clinic had had a sinus infection for four weeks, and she was really ill,” Pruitt recalled. “She didn't have the money to go to an urgent care and didn't want to go to the ER because that would have probably been a $200 bill. She told me she had the money to pay for the antibiotic if it was on the $4 list at Wal-Mart – she just didn't have the money to be seen by a doctor.”

Some patients insist on paying the $4 for their prescriptions.

“That's a good thing because it allows us to use that money for someone who doesn't have it,” Pruitt noted.

For more expensive medications, the Free Clinic receives assistance from the Free Clinic of Central Virginia in Lynchburg which has a pharmacy, or goes directly to the drug manufacturer.

“There's a lot of medicines that although they've been out for years aren't cheap,” Pruitt advised. “We can pull them straight from the company, and they're paid for.”

Farmville's Clinic is now in the process of setting up a pharmacy.

“The Centra Foundation gave us a grant for $57,860 that is restricted to paying for medicine,” Payne noted.

“That doesn't pay for the safe or the security system we will need,” Rev. Meadows added. “Our biggest need at this time is to establish a regular base of financial support for the operation of our clinic into a sustainable future.”

Included on the “Donation Needs” list in the HOVFC newsletter are: $1,525 – security system for pharmacy; $1,000 – one year membership in Rx Partnership to provide access to many free medicines from the pharmacy; $350 – required reference materials for the pharmacy.

“Prevention is worth a pound of cure,” Rev. Meadows added. “A lot of people will be prevented from having a serious medical problem if they can be seen by a doctor and get the medicine they need.”

“We had one patient whose blood sugar was out of control,” Payne related. “She told me no one could get her blood sugar under control, she felt terrible, and she didn't think she could live like that much longer. Dr. Pruitt saw her and referred her to an endocrinologist who recommended an insulin pump – but it cost $5,000.”

Payne told the patient to pray about it, which she did. She also told her boss and friends at work about the pump.

“They all got together and bought the insulin pump for her,” Payne reported. “Now her blood sugar is under control for the first time in years.”

Such success stories are the result of many hours of dedicated volunteer service.

“You get up that morning and think – I have to work all day and all night,” Pruitt said. “But once you get there the night flies by, and you go home not as exhausted as when you came.”

“We have four dentists who have committed to volunteer,” Payne advised.

One donor has already given $5,000 to help set up the needed equipment for the dental clinic and has offered her support if the clinic can raise an additional $5,000 to match her gift.

“The jewels of our clinic are the retired volunteers,” Payne added. “We have a marvelous retired nursing professor – she's written two grant proposals for us, and we have a retired surgeon who paid to get his medical license reinstated so he could come in to see patients.”

On the other end of the volunteer spectrum are college students.

“We have two Hampden-Sydney students from the Good Men-Good Citizens class who are writing a grant proposal for us at the end of the semester,” Payne related. “Their classmates will judge the proposal and decide whether or not to fund the request with a $10,000 donation available to them.”

“We also have Longwood students who are folding letters, and senior nursing students from the Longwood Department of Nursing who will be coming as part of their rotation this fall,” Payne added.

In addition to donations of equipment and supplies from medical professionals in the area, Centra Southside Community Hospital has donated laboratory and x-ray services to the Free Clinic.

“There are several specialists in town who have said they will accept referrals from the clinic,” added Payne.

“We have a good cross-section on our board as well,” Rev. Meadows noted. “We have a retired engineer, a banker, a couple of ministers, and a lady on the Board of Supervisors. People from all walks of life have been a part of this. It's a beautiful mosaic of God's people.”

Rev. Meadows sees God's presence at work every time she visits the Free Clinic.

“Our whole organization is filled with people of faith,” she observed.

Pruitt related an incident on the Clinic's opening night.

“It was the first patient I ever saw there,” she recalled. “I knew what to do for the patient, but I wasn't sure how to do it in this setting, so I went out of the room to ask Pat a question.”

When Pruitt returned to the examining room she found her patient saying a prayer.

“My patient was saying a prayer,” Pruitt recalled. “She was saying a prayer for me.”

The Free Clinic has touched many lives, on both the volunteer and patient side, over the past six months. All agree that it should continue.

“I do believe that there are people out there that once they know what this clinic is all about will want to contribute,” Rev. Meadows confirmed

“The Free Clinic was a hope and a dream,” Payne concluded. “It was an experiment, but it's worked for six months. We need support now in order to continue. Everything and anything is appreciated. If we want the Clinic to continue we need to have the support.”

For information on the Heart of Virginia Free Clinic, to volunteer, or to make a donation or memorial contribution call (434) 315-5701 or visit their website: