Clinic reaches out with light, love

Story by Angie Self

Traveling south on Highway 7 toward Dardanelle, the highway curves westward so that travelers head directly toward the setting sun when crossing the bridge. Christians focus their lives on Jesus Christ, their “light of the world.” In the same way, Pope County patients served by the River Valley Christian Clinic head toward the light on the second and fourth Thursday evenings of the month for the treatment they are unable to afford.

As darkness falls, it’s not hard for patients coming from any direction in Yell County to see the free clinic with the new, lighted sign in front of the former Millard-Henry Clinic building on Highway 22 West. The donated sign is simply black with the white light shining through outlining the clinic logo — a cross on a hill. The scripture on the sign reads: “He healeth the broken in heart, and bindeth up their wounds. Psalms 147:3.”

Once inside the clinic, the place is alive with light and activity. It’s not just the fluorescent lighting, but the light that radiates from the volunteers who make the clinic happen. The goal of the clinic is not just to provide health care to anyone in the River Valley who cannot afford to access traditional care, but to provide spiritual guidance.

Volunteers were recently reminded of this purpose by Dr. James Carter, board member. Volunteers gather an hour early on clinic nights for a free meal and devotional provided by a local sponsoring church or community leaders. Carter explained that many of the patients seen are in a spiraling downward pattern of situations that seem to never end.

“We’re here to give these people hope,” Carter said. “We want them to know that God loves them, and we can meet their needs. The main thing we need to do tonight is show them love – smile at them, talk to them and pray with them. These people are more impressed by what we do than what we say.”

Four hours later, after the clinic had served over 100 people, a first-time patient leaves with a smile, a light in her eyes and a small sack of medicine.

“As someone who has worked in the medical profession, I have never felt so welcomed or respected as a person who needs help as I have here tonight,” said the patient. “I was extremely apprehensive about coming. I have my pride, you know. I prayed about it, and the Lord told me to put my pride in my pocket and come and get the love, comfort and healing I need.”

The retired certified nursing assistant heard about the clinic from a neighbor, a dental patient who had several teeth extracted. It took her a while to muster up the courage to come to the clinic. She said that most free clinics have the reputation of looking down their noses at the patients. That didn’t happen for her at the River Valley Christian Clinic, and she was so glad she came.

This testimony is one of many ways that Carter receives confirmation the project is in the will of God, he said. The “almost” retired doctor was approached by his friend Mike Miller, a local engineer, about starting the project. Miller had heard about a similar clinic from Johnny and Julie Morgan of Russellville. One of their parents volunteers at the Mountain Home Christian Clinic.

Carter has a heart for helping people, not only as a physician, but as a volunteer on foreign medical mission trips. Personal health issues have prevented him from traveling out of the country since 1999. The River Valley Christian Clinic was just the “mission project” he felt God would have him do.

At the same time, three other Russellville residents visited the Mountain Home clinic in hopes of maybe starting a free clinic in the River Valley. Drs. Chris Horan and Dan Fields, along with Judge Don Bourne, went to Mountain Home a few weeks before Carter and Miller along with Dr. Stephen Davis, pastor. Carter came home, contacted these gentlemen, and the spark turned into a flame.

“One of the things that has been so great about this clinic is that at every need, God has provided an answer,” he said. “Even in small details like our sign out front. We were having a board meeting and considering estimates for having a new sign made.

They were more expensive than we really wanted to pay.

“We had a volunteer show up during the meeting…He volunteered on the spot to make us a new sign.”

With a handful of people, it was decided that the clinic be faith-based, just as the one in Mountain Home.

“I was so impressed by the way it was run. Mountain Home became our model. We wouldn’t be where we are today without looking to their program for guidance.”

Volunteers for the River Valley Christian Clinic were up to 500 in about three months by going through five churches targeted originally for their support. Each church was asked to give $5,000 to get the project started. One church could not commit that from their normal budget, said Miller, but agreed to take up a love offering to fulfill the commitment. That church ended up donating almost $10,000.

Two members from each church of the original sponsoring churches make up the clinic’s board. A lawyer and accountant donated assistance for the clinic to file as a 501(c) (3) non-profit organization.

Meetings started in the spring of 2006 to pull the project together with the first clinic held just 10 months later.

The River Valley Christian Center began with a rent-free facility that has always been a medical facility, thanks to St. Mary’s, owner and operator of the former Millard- Henry Clinic branch in Dardanelle.

Miller, former president of Van Horn Construction, secured donated remodeling of the facility. Ken Morely and Bill Pendergraft drop by once a week to take care of maintenance needs for the facility.

“We couldn’t have dreamed that the clinic would be this successful in such a short period of time,” said Miller. “We have volunteers that have really made this work. We even have a husband and wife that donate their time each week to clean the facility.”

Dan Ryder, a Russellville dentist, has headed the dental section of the clinic, attending a dental conference on free clinics to prepare for the program which began serving patients in April. A grant for $40,000 from Delta Dental Group in Little Rock helped the program by equipping the clinic with needed equipment.

The group provided another grant of about $3,000 more recently. Another company donated the dental installations, and Adec, a dental company in Little Rock, donated a third dental chair which was first used on Nov. 8.

Dental services are so in demand that volunteer dentists pulled teeth until midnight the first night it was offered, Miller explained. Dental appointments are being booked up to three months in advance.

Karen Brossard, a licensed assistant for a local physical therapist, volunteers as a dental assistant. “It’s nice just to help someone feel comfortable about smiling again or not ashamed to go out and try to find a job. So many people put off dental work because they can’t afford it. It now costs about $100 to have a tooth pulled.”

Dental patients, by nature, are more time-consuming than the medical patients. However, Marcia Chronister, clinic administrator, explained that Medicaid and Medicare patients can qualify for dental assistance when they do not qualify for medical assistance.

Dental is not covered under these government-assisted programs. Medicare patients who meet the income guidelines qualify for dental assistance, making the demand higher, she said. Patients may call toll-free number (877-229-3450 or 479-229-2566 for local calls) for appointments to see if the qualify for assistance.

Chronister has helped the clinic run smoothly in so many ways, Carter said, scheduling dental appointments and seeing that returning patients have their paperwork in order. She is at the clinic from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Monday through Friday, except for the day following clinic when the clinic doesn’t open until noon.

There are now about 750 volunteers representing 70 churches, said Don Guess, board member and clinic promoter. Guess speaks to area churches about the clinic and has church sponsors (who provide a meal for the volunteers and a devotional to help set the tone for the evening) booked through March. Community leaders are also chosen to sponsor the clinic.

About 70 volunteers are needed to assist at each clinic. Patient loads have been over 100 since August, with the highest number of 125 served in one night.

Louise Hixon volunteers her nursing skills at the clinic and loves what she is able to do for people. She has worked in the nursing profession for 31 years and currently works at a nursing home in Atkins.

“This country is so insurance-driven when it comes to medical assistance,” she explained. “If you are unable to afford insurance, you pretty much are unable to afford medical treatment. Most of the time, the people who don’t have insurance are the people who need medical assistance the most.

Hixon remembers the first patient that was brought back on the opening night. “She was a diabetic. We put her in one of the rooms, and she just started crying. All she wanted was some strips to go into her machine to check her blood sugar. She couldn’t afford to buy anymore and had just been guessing the past two weeks on how much insulin she needed. We set her up with a three-month supply of strips, and she was just fine.”

Guess recalls that one patient lived within four miles of the clinic and didn’t even know of its existence until he visited the church she attended. His primary purpose in visiting the area churches is to get support for the clinic. Any church that is interested in hearing about the free clinic may call 858-1687 or 967-3794.

A fund-raising committee formed in March. Donations have come in large and small packages. Most churches take up a love offering when Guess comes to speak. One business partnership donated $20,000 to the clinic. A volunteer sold raffle tickets for a quilt she made and was able to donate $800. Posey Printing of Russellville donated office forms, brochures, patient cards and other printing needs for the clinic. Carter said the patients are even able to help a little from time to time.

Other key leaders who help make sure each section is running properly are: Dr. Chris Horan, Lynn Calloway, Chuck Wilson, Jim Lieblong, Sharon Tucker, Rick and Sherry Ballentine, Angie James, Gayle Caldwell, Montie and Carla Sims, Suzanne Yelverton and Mary Ann Arterbury. Calvary Baptist Church offers free parking and shuttle services on clinic nights.

A very important part of the clinic that isn’t run by doctors or nurses is the Patient Assistance Program (PAP). Medications supplied free to patients are funded with donations to the clinic, Carter explained. In order to help with these expenses, PAP attempts to obtain medication for patient’s long-term needs directly from pharmaceutical companies.

Sharon Burns has headed this program and helped set up the computer software. Volunteer Joe Simmons spends about a half a day most week days working on all required paperwork and re-orders for patients. Patients receive a 30-day supply of medications from the clinic pharmacy. If medications are secured through PAP, patients receive a 90-day supply. She explained that some of the older patients who are still under 60 may have from 6 to 8 medications they take daily.

“They can’t afford them,” Burns said. “They make some money, but not enough to pay for that much medicine. This is where we can help at the clinic.” The clinic has distributed over $100,000 worth of medications since February, she said.

Volunteer William Scott says the clinic is set up for waived lab testing. The lab draws blood and sends cultures to Labcorp who reads them for free. Pathology Services of Russellville has also provided many services for the clinic. The free clinic has an agreement with the River Valley Medical Center in Dardanelle to read lab work that needs immediate attention.

Some diabetic patients may need further treatment from a foot specialist. Podiatrists in Russellville have offered to see the clinic’s patients in their own office free of charge. Physical therapists have offered the same assistance.

Carter is currently working with larger local medical facilities to offer “at-cost” services — including services such as an MRI, Cat Scan, ultrasound and colonoscopy.

Recently, a male patient came in with a chronic cough and feeling run down. A chest X-ray at the clinic revealed a spot on his lung. A local facility agreed to do a Cat Scan, charging the clinic only what it cost them to provide the service. The patient, diagnosed with lung cancer, is receiving treatments at UAMS in Little Rock.

Local gynecologists have agreed to start assisting during clinic nights with women who need further testing after abnormal pap smears. Drs. Vickie Henderson and Jody Calloway recently assisted in conducting colposcopies on some patients who needed further testing. Millard-Henry Clinic donated a colposcope to the free clinic. This equipment is used to detect precancerous lesions early and treat them to prevent cervical cancer.

Lynn Calloway, Pope County Health Department nurse who volunteers at River Valley Christian Clinic, said she is excited about getting a program aimed at providing additional services for women. She sees patients at the health department who need this service but can’t afford it.

“It’s important for them to receive further testing in order to prevent cancer from spreading,” Calloway said. “It’s curable if it is caught in its early stages.”

Carter is working on offering a separate clinic time for diabetic patients, who make up 20 to 30 percent of the clinic’s patients.

“We have so many doctors that volunteer, that these patients are seeing a different doctor each time they return. With diabetes, this is not good. It’s better to have consistent health care with limited change in doctors. I’m working to secure volunteers specifically for a diabetic clinic. This will include not only medical doctors but volunteer podiatrists and dieticians for counseling.”

Many patients at the clinic have hypertension, depression and anxiety issues that are escalated because of their financial stresses or trauma in their life. Sarah Ferguson, a volunteer nurse, lost a friend in a car accident shorthly after the clinic opened.

“One of our friends was so upset by our loss that she became severely depressed,” Ferguson explained. “She dropped out of school and lost custody of her daughter. One night, she showed up at the clinic. Dr. Carter bent over backwards to help her with her depression.”

“Attitude is just as important as what we do,” Carter said. “We don’t ever want our patients to feel like we are reaching down to them. All our patients are people just like us. They just are at a place in their life where they can’t afford treatment. We want to show these people the love of Christ through our services.”

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