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Hearts & Hands Clinic faces growing need
Funding falls during stubbornly tough economic times
Hearts Clinic file Web
In this Herald file photo from 2010, local optometrist Krystal Bragg, right, gives an eye exam as part of services from the Hearts & Hands Clinic. The clinic is in dire needs of funding. - photo by SCOTT BRYANT/Herald File

Hearts & Hands Clinic; one patient's experience


A 53-year-old woman walked to The Hearts & Hands Clinic on Monday to fill out an application to become a patient.
She had just been diagnosed with ovarian cancer by the emergency room at East Georgia Regional Medical Center and recommended to get treatment at Memorial University Medical Center in Savannah.
When she contacted Memorial, she was told she needed a referral from a primary care physician. Not having been sick “a day in her life” before this, she didn’t have one, said Jordan Wilburn, the director of operations for Hearts & Hands.
“The volunteer and I could tell that she was in pain,” Wilburn said. “She was writhing and clutching her side periodically, and she stated that she hadn't taken the pain medicine from the emergency room because she didn't want to be groggy when she came to see us. After looking at the documentation she brought from the hospital, I told her we would do everything we could to get her in right away (as opposed to our often three-month wait).”
The woman was added to already-full schedule for the Tuesday evening clinic. Dr. Kevin Purvis examined her and referred her to a gynecological oncologist. When Anne Clifton, the medical coordinator for Hearts & Hands, contacted Memorial on Wednesday, she learned the patient could be treated through Memorial’s indigent care program for a $100 fee and that Dr. James Burke II would see her that day in Statesboro.
“Hearts & Hands used a women's health donation to cover her up-front cost, and she saw Dr. Burke Wednesday afternoon,” Wilburn said. “She is scheduled for surgery next week, and has continually expressed overwhelming gratitude to everyone involved with Hearts & Hands Clinic.”

 

When Jessie Burns first went to The Hearts & Hands Clinic after it opened two years ago, she already knew she had high blood pressure, and she hadn’t been able to afford her medication for some time.
She didn’t know, however, that she also had Type 2 diabetes, until she was diagnosed by volunteers working at the free clinic.
“I was like a ticking time bomb, taking one day at a time and not knowing what would happen,” said Burns, of Statesboro. “When you go to the doctor, if you don’t have health insurance, that’s the end of the conversation, and the price is extremely high.”
Burns didn’t have health insurance because, while her employer offers it, she can’t afford to pay for it. And she was the breadwinner after her husband, who also is a Hearts & Hands patient, lost his job.
“There’s no color, race or religion barrier,” she said of the clinic. “They help everyone that may need help. You never know when (health problems) might be knocking at your door without insurance, without the wealth, of taking care of yourself or any means of going to a doctor.”
Hearts & Hands staffers say stories similar to Burns’ abound among their patients. To qualify to receive free treatment, patients must be Bulloch County residents, not have other health insurance and have family income that is 200 percent or less of the federal poverty level.
The clinic relies entirely on private donations – by individuals, businesses and foundations – and has only one paid employee. Until recently, Hearts & Hands also had a full-time executive director, Alvie Coes, but after receiving a large cut in a significant foundation grant this year, the board of directors decided his position had to be eliminated to allow the clinic to continue to serve as many as possible.
Coes said that while having his position cut wasn’t pleasant, his greater concern is that more funding come in so the clinic can continue to serve those who are most in need.
“It is very important,” he said. “There are just so many people right now who don’t have access to health care. They can’t afford to go to the doctor. They don’t have adequate transportation to get to Savannah. There is a federal clinic in Metter that costs $25 a visit, but some people can’t even afford that.”

Overwhelming need
Since opening in September 2010 inside Son’s Light Fellowship Baptist Church on U.S. Highway 301 South, the clinic has had to keep waiting lists for medical, dental and vision services. The clinic has since added women’s health services and gastroenterology to its offerings.
This past summer, Hearts & Hands moved into a larger space at 127 N. College St., closer to where many of its patients live. Son’s Light did not charge rent, but the clinic has to pay rent and utility costs in the new space. The tradeoff is that the patient care areas offer more space and privacy than was available in the church facility.
Those rent and utility expenses and the salary of its one full-time employee -- Jordan Wilburn, the director of operations -- are the only costs that are not directly related to patient care. Everyone else at the clinic – Georgia Southern students gaining clinical experience, medical coordinator Anne Clifton, the board of directors and all doctors, dentists and optometrists who provide service – is a volunteer.
All of the furniture inside the North College Street facility is donated, as is the television and even the cable service in the waiting room.
On Tuesday -- the one night each week the clinic sees patients -- the waiting room is packed and people line the hallway waiting to get routine checks such as height, weight and blood pressure.
Dr. Brian DeLoach, the medical director and chief of medical staff for Georgia Southern University Student Health Services, volunteers at Hearts & Hands once or twice a month for two to three hours each.
Dr. Larry Hubbard, a Statesboro dentist, sets aside a Friday every couple of months to see 15-20 patients who need extractions, simple fillings. Hearts & Hands refers them to him and other dentists, who schedule these patients in as they can.
Dennis Nelson’s company, American General Maintenance, built the clinic’s original dental facility at Son’s Light and is close to completing one, for free, at the new location. Nelson has been working with Dr. Jimmy High, another Statesboro dentist, to ensure the dental chairs and X-ray machine “are beyond the standard,” said Andres Montes, a founder of the clinic and chairman of the board.
Even with all of this help, the need has proven overwhelming. One in four Bulloch County residents does not have health insurance. A progress report the clinic recently issued says: “We are currently on pace to double patient volume for 2012 due to limited health-care access and high unemployment in our local area.”
Yet it doesn’t take much to make a significant difference. Wilburn said a $26 donation covers all the costs of lab work, medication and medical supplies needed for one medical visit for the average patient. A $5 donation can pay for a glucose meter and 50 glucose strips, used to monitor diabetic patients.

Giving back
To sustain and even grow those services, though, even more funding is needed. Several people associated with the clinic said the elimination of Coes’ position shows just how dependent Hearts & Hands is on the community’s generosity. The clinic receives no government funding.
DeLoach said he strongly believes in Hearts & Hands’ mission.
“I am from here and the people of Bulloch County helped make me the person I am today,” he said. “I feel like this is an opportunity to for me to give back to the community that has always supported me and has been an important part of my life. Every single patient I have interacted with at Hearts and Hands has made a point to express their gratitude for the service the organization provides, which is refreshing.”
Montes was part of a group of Georgia Southern students who came together in 2008 with a vision of helping those in Bulloch County who don’t have access to health care.
“We were in the same (presidential) election process then that we are now. The candidates were saying we need to change health care,” Montes said. “As students, we said instead of just thinking about it, why not show the community we can actually do it? This is our way of thanking the community for what they do for us as students, and this amazing community has joined us.”

Jason Wermers may be reached at (912) 489-9431.

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