SOS: Last stop for care for many

The Valley's only free clinic is seeing a rise in patients cut from Medicaid rolls.

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I recall when one of our physicians spent over an hour providing compassionate care for a battered woman who left her abusive home with only the clothes on her back.

Last month we had an insulin dependent diabetic who had lost her job and health benefits, and had taken her last insulin shot the day she came to the clinic.

I have often experienced the joy of a mother or father's reaction when they learn that we can complete a sports physical and paperwork for their child without an appointment.

Such things are frequent occurrences at SOS Health Services of Walla Walla, the only free clinic serving people from Dayton to Pendleton with no other recourse to health care.

But my most memorable patient was a homeless middle-aged woman living in her car with her dog. She was out of medication and on the list for a place in the homeless shelter for women.

She was well-educated with advanced college degrees and planning to become a nurse. But she suffered from mental health issues that required multiple medications for her to function - medications for which she had no money to buy.

"SOS Clinic saved my life," she told me.

She now is helping college students who have mental health and learning disabilities who need help organizing their coursework and study time, and also tutoring writing and math.

The SOS Clinic resembles the rural working-class clinic started by Dr. Hunter Adams as portrayed in the movie "Patch Adams." Ours is not on a 316 acre farm like Dr. Adams' clinic, but in the heart of the Walla Walla Valley. We have about 1,200 patient visits a year. They are treated in a walk-in clinic that is open four hours a week.

But that number has been increasing since Washington cut basic care Medicaid. The action has affected local hospitals and clinics, which lack funds to continue charity health care.

Statewide, according to the Medicaid office, the cuts in the first three months of this year reduced by 30 percent statewide the number of adults covered by basic health care. In Walla Walla County, the number of adults covered by basic health dropped 76 percent over the same January-March period, from 2,683 to 636.

As a result, the SOS Clinic's patients load could triple in 2012. That means the clinic will need to expand its hours and medical staff to accommodate people who formerly received Medicaid benefits. An SOS committee is currently working with a fund-raising consultant to draft a strategic plan that will be presented to the board in 2012.

Humble beginnings

The SOS Clinic was started by Dr. Ron Fleck, who had a vision for a free clinic, a donation from St. Mary Medical Center, and shared space with the local food bank -- humble beginnings for a no-frills clinic.

It was established in 2000 as an urgent care facility that provides quality walk-in treatment for those who have no health insurance. While there is no charge for services, patient donations are encouraged and appreciated.

After five years, the clinic moved to a nursing home complex owned by SonBridge Community Center. In 2012, the clinic will move down the hall to a new medical wing built with donations and volunteer sweat. A grant from the Sherwood Trust, a local charitable organization, will complete the medical facility.

Patients who walk in for treatment come from all walks of life with a variety of health issues. Some needs are are urgent while some are chronic and often neglected due to lack of access to a physician. This is especially true for the growing number of mentally-ill patients seeking care in the Valley.

SOS is a "first come, first seen" walk-in clinic. After patients check in and fill out necessary paperwork, nurses document vital signs a list of all over-the-counter and prescribed medications.

If patients have symptoms that require lab tests to confirm, tests - the single most expensive clinic budget item - are then ordered.

SOS also provides a women's clinic by appointment. Nurse practitioner Cynthia Reese serves these patients, who have no other options for pap or breast exams.

All in a day's giving

But the clinic cannot serve the 13 to 21 patients in two hours that it does without the outstanding crew of volunteer nurses and specialists who support the physicians.

More are always welcome. In fact, there are about 50 to 60 physicians in our valley who could make a difference if each donated two hours a year. With that kind of help, we could keep the clinic open every day to serve the uninsured and keep down the cost of these patients going to expensive emergency rooms for non-emergency basic care.

The SOS clinic may be open for only four hours a week, but the nurses continue to volunteer after the doctors are done for the day.

These volunteers make follow-up phone calls for referrals to medical specialists and diabetic educators, calling in prescriptions, setting up appointments for the next women's clinic, picking up medical and office supplies, sorting through the thousands of donated medical items, boxing up supplies for foreign missions, getting the dictation picked up and inserted into each patient file, assisting patients with a variety of paperwork for various financial assistant programs, and so forth.

It never ends.

Janice Anhorn, a registered nurse and the clinic's supervisor, is my mentor. She has taught me all the basics for managing an outpatient free clinic. She has the ability to lead and inspire students and volunteers and she is the reason I am still a volunteer.

I have served as a nurse for six physicians and two nurse practitioners. I have met over a thousand patients and hundreds of volunteers in my three years at the clinic. My reward is the bliss I receive by volunteering at the SOS Clinic.

Where would these patients go for medical care if the clinic could not keep its doors open?

Bessie Hinchman is board secretary for SOS Health Services of Walla Walla and a nurse volunteer.
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