DEIRDRE C. MAYS
AIKEN — The gaps between HMO’s, private insurance, and federal health programs are wide and people with very low incomes often fall between the cracks. They don’t qualify for the standard routes of health care and can barely afford to scrape by, let alone pay for a visit to a clinic that is too far away or has even a nominal fee.
ACTS of Caring Clinic, located at 154 Waterloo St., is an outreach trying to help those people by keeping them well. The clinic provides free medical care for uninsured people who can’t avail themselves of other services.
Every Tuesday and Thursday night, around 15-20 people line up outside of a small medical office to be taken into one of three tiny examination rooms and treated by volunteer doctors or nurses. Everything in the clinic has been donated from the blood pressure cuffs to the fire extinguishers hanging on the wall.
The clinic was initiated by Aiken Churches Together Serving, a group of over 60 local churches joined in an ecumenical outreach that provides food, clothing, assistance and services to the needy. It is financially supported by ACTS, grants from the Sisters of Charity and Daughters of Charity, United Way, Aiken Regional Medical Center and private donations. Sister Patricia Lucchesi, manager of ACTS, said the mission’s primary target is to help single mothers.
Prospective patients call the center and are screened by phone. Marie Fulgham, the clinic manager, said they refer or turn about 25 percent of callers away. Prospective patients cannot have health insurance, Medicare or Medicaid, or be eligible to receive treatment at the County Health Department and other agencies. Their income must fall under poverty level based on total household income and size. If people meet the criteria, they are given an appointment. Fulgham said these restrictions prevent duplication of service and competition between other agencies.
The most common illnesses the clinic handles are high blood pressure and diabetes. The medical personnel do not treat diseases that can be handled at the health department or take in medical emergencies.
ACTS of Caring is staffed by volunteer primary care physicians, registered nurses, pharmacists and social workers who come straight from their regular jobs. Each night, five or more volunteers show up. Some nights only a nurse practitioner or physician’s assistant are on hand, but they can write prescriptions which are filled from the clinic’s limited pharmacy. Several pharmaceutical companies have donated medicines.
Three people are on the permanent staff including Fulgham, who is a member of St. Mary Help of Christians Church, the nurse practitioner, and the physician’s assistant.
Sister Lucchesi, said they hope to have a larger building and more hours someday. Indeed, the lines outside the front door at 5:30 p.m., and the lengthening list of volunteers, attest to the need and desire for such a service. From the moment the doors open, the activity level is high. People move in and out of rooms quickly, some fill out paperwork, others get weighed in the hallway.
To help with day-to-day operations, ACTS has two Green Thumb workers, Betty Etheredge and Mary Simpkins. Fulgham said they wanted to use Green Thumb, because it is an organization for people over 55 who are paid minimum wage and go to work for nonprofit organizations and get on-the-job training.
“This a nice place to work,” Fulgham said. “The volunteers are like family. We are very supportive to our patients and to each other. You can feel the love here and it really does make you feel good to be here.”
ACTS opened Dec. 10. 1998. Brochures were placed in convenience stores, doctors’ offices and social service agencies. The clinic was publicized thanks to the Rotary Club, Helpline, and the local media. Right away, Fulgham noticed that they saw more women than men.
“The women are generally between the ages of 45 through 60, not childbearing age, and they don’t qualify for Medicaid,” she explained.
Sister Lucchesi believes ACTS of Caring Clinic is an act of God. She had prayed about whether or not to open a clinic for over nine months. One day after asking God to giver her a sign, Sister Pat was approached by ACTS director Pat Bisschop about it. Two days later, a nurse practitioner volunteered to work. A board of directors was quickly formed to oversee the clinic.
“Everything just fell into place,” Sister Pat said. “It’s a miracle. It is born from God, inspired by him. We are looking at a bigger plan, a vision of the clinic to be a total health center for mind, body and soul.”
Denise Finkbeiner, a clinic boardmember and nurse manager at Aiken Regional Medical Center, also helps ACTS while she is in school to become a family nurse practitioner. She said the clinic is invaluable for preventative care.
“We can try to prevent them from having problems and that decreases the cost of health care to a population that doesn’t get the care they need,” she said. “We’re here to at least steer them in the right direction, to see that their needs are being met. It’s a lot of work, but definitely fulfilling.”
Gloria Burnett, a nurse and technical specialist for Special Laboratories, wanted to give back to the community.
“I have been a struggling single mother and I understand the difficulty that some of the patients go through,” she said.
Kathy Watson is on staff as a family nurse practitioner. She works for the Department of Health and Environmental Control. Though she is paid for her time, her rewards are not monetary.
“I’m also a Christian,” she said. “We meet a lot of good needs and it’s great to be a part of helping to bridge the gap.” She too was a single mother and can identify with struggling to make ends meet. She said her faith helped her through. Fulgham agrees. She sees that faith through ACTS and deeds.
“After all,” Fulgham said, “the idea behind trying to help people is to glorify God.”