Healing in the church: Free clinic helps people in three Lowcountry UMCs

By Jessica Connor

RIDGEVILLE—Month after month, they come to the small rural church, sitting patiently in folding chairs as they wait for triage, then the doctor, then a prescription or some lab work. Some treatment, finally —some relief for the pain they ve struggled with night after night, day after day, often year after year.

A sharp-eyed older woman smiles as she moves up in line. A younger man relaxes visibly as the nursing assistant takes his blood pressure. At last some help. Some relief. Some hope.

And it s all happening in the spiritual heart of three communities in the Walterboro District: a house of God.

The churches ”New Hope UMC in Ridgeville, Wesley UMC in Ladson and the latest, Shady Grove UMC in St. George ”provide space and volunteers on varying days for a free medical clinic run by the nonprofit Medical Ministries. From 5 p.m. until the last patient is seen, the church opens its doors to anyone in the community who needs medical care regardless of their ability to pay. New Hope holds the clinic the second and fourth Tuesdays of each month, Wesley does the first Tuesday and Shady Grove does the second and fourth Mondays of each month. Medical Ministries supplies the doctor, nurses, nursing assistants, phlebotomists, physician s assistants and lab techs, plus administration. The churches provide the space, the volunteers and the outreach.

Together they are helping people, saving lives and spreading the love of Christ to people in need.

The clinic is invaluable, said New Hope pastor the Rev. Willie Dicks Jr. We re in an area with people who have no resources, no medical coverage at all. We ve seen their progress, seen some people avoid catastrophic illness because of this. It s been outstanding.

Their needs vary. Some of the patients have chronic health issues, such as diabetes or hypertension, but could not afford the medication or proper checkups. Others have isolated issues that, left untreated, could cause major health trouble or even death.

We ve discovered many serious problems, said Dr. Alan Abel, who volunteers his time to help the clinic. One man had the worst rash I d ever seen. He had like fish scales all over him. It turned out it was psoriasis.

Ministering like Jesus

Sometimes the patient has insurance but lives in an area so rural there is no doctor, and they don t have transportation to Charleston or elsewhere for care. Sometimes the patient is unemployed, or is the working uninsured, whether because they cannot afford coverage or because they are self-employed.

It s very needed in this area, said Queen Trappier, director of Medical Ministries. A lot of people don t have a job, or they re working poor and can t afford (health care). They re wondering, ˜Am I going to eat or keep a roof over my head?

Tears well up in her eyes when you ask Marty Young what the free clinic means to her. Her husband is on worker s compensation, and they are on an extremely fixed income.

I don t know what we d do without this clinic. Here, the doctor is free; many of the prescriptions are free. Tonight, Young said, holding out a box of medicine as tears rolls down her cheeks, this is a $180 medication, and I got it for free. We could never afford this.

This is a Godsend. I really, really mean it.

The Rev. Otis Scott, pastor of Shady Grove, said one of the reasons his church built its new Family Life Center was to provide ministries like the clinic to its congregation and community. Scott said the church needs to be about more than Sunday worship; it needs to be serving the people just like Jesus did.

We believe Jesus ministered to the whole person, not just the spiritual, and we believe this is what God would have us to do, Scott said. That s why people responded to Him ”He cared about them.

More than health care

The clinics operate roughly the same. Patients sign in at the door at tables staffed by church volunteers. They are seen on a first-come, first-served basis. While they wait, they often receive a free meal cooked by the congregation, or they might have access to a clothing closet or other helpful items. Volunteers are available to talk about lifestyle changes, such as managing diabetes, hypertension, cooking and exercise. There is a Benefit Bank to help people understand how to access free medical benefits, if they are eligible.

We become an emotional support ”not only medicine for the body but for the soul, said volunteer Bonnie Banks. We ve even gotten jobs for people who needed one.

Then they line up for triage, where they are prepared to see the doctor: blood pressure, height and weight checks, among other assessments. All of the information is entered into a computer system with practice management software that links all three churches, so their information can be easily shared with others who help them.

Then Abel, who is at every clinic, examines them, talks with them and tells each patient personally what the treatment plan is.

Abel said he initially agreed to help one night, but he came away with an extraordinary feeling far different from his experience in his private practice in Charleston.

Every one of (the patients) shook my hand after and said ˜thank you, and I realized these are the people who don t have anyone to take care of them, said Abel, who has been helping since. I don t think people realize the situation rural communities have. They think, ˜Oh, they have Medicaid. But ¦ these are the truly needy. They don t have the resources and they don t have the access and they don t know how to get it.

They don t want something for nothing. They just want medical care and don t know how to get it.

Their visit ends with lab work and/or free or reduced-cost prescriptions, plus a follow-up appointment.

Success stories

Indeed, the clinics are sorely needed, say the volunteers, pastors and patients.

We are rural, and a lot of people just can t afford medical services and can t afford insurance, Scott said.

In some of these tiny towns, like Ridgeville, there are no doctors at all. People needing medical care must travel to a nearby city like Charleston, which can be difficult and even impossible for those without a vehicle or who cannot afford to pay a friend to transport them.

The Rev. Julius McDowell, pastor of Wesley UMC, said so many people in his community of Ladson were underinsured or had
no insurance, and they were having strokes and other calamities that could have been prevented through proper medical care.

One lady came to the church the first time, had some problems with her heart, and we had just got started and didn't have one of those defibrillators, so we had to send her to a medical station, McDowell said. She came back and told us we saved her life. They did something with her heart and now she s coming to us to get maintenance. We saved her life!

McDowell recounts other stories: a woman who couldn t afford to take her diabetes medication regularly, but thanks to the clinic, her condition is now under control and she serves as a volunteer. An obese woman who, because of the education and assistance she received at the clinic, was able to lose 80 pounds and drop to just one medication per day.

This has just enhanced a lot more of what we are supposed to do in regards to taking care of our brothers and sisters in being extremely missional in our community, McDowell said.

Dicks recounted the story of one patient whose lab work was so troubling that the doctor ordered immediate hospitalization. The man had no transportation, so in a spirit of neighborliness, the local police drove to the man s house, picked him up and brought him all the way to the hospital. The man has had two major surgeries already.

I m pretty certain had it not been for this clinic I would have buried him, Dicks said.

Eric Sanders, a member of New Hope, is one of the patients at the clinic and understands firsthand how difficult it can be to see a doctor, especially when you don't have a car. Now, he helps out at the clinic, too, checking people in, inviting people on the streets and even on occasion providing rides to and from the clinic.

It s great to be able to go to my own church and see a doctor, Sanders said. Unlike his experience at other medical facilities, Here it s one on one, they sit down with you and tell you exactly what you need to do.

Showing God s love

The excitement is contagious, they all say ”the ministry is mobilizing the church and the community, and showing God s love in so many personal ways.

The health profession is now all about business, and we ve often lost sight it should be a ministry to the least, the lost and the hurting, Scott said.

But now, thanks to the partnership between Medical Ministries and these local churches, people are getting help and wanting to help others in return.

I have little kids coming up to me and saying, ˜Rev. Scott, can I volunteer? Scott said.

All involved are hoping to branch out and involve more churches in the effort. They are talking seriously with one UMC in the Orangeburg District now, and they welcome the opportunity to talk with many others.

For more information about the clinic or to learn about hosting a similar clinic in your church, call Dicks at 757-719-2732.

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