Inspiration on a Muddy Road

By Gayle Harper | Photography courtesy of Volunteers in Medicine

The Volunteers in Medicine organization has been changing lives since 1993 when a retired physician saw a need for a free clinic for the disadvantaged. Today, 87 VIM Free Clinics operate in 28 states, including three in Mississippi.
Dr. Jack McConnell, a pediatrician and renowned medical researcher, thought he would retire in 1989 and spend most of his time playing golf. With his wife, Mary Ellen, they settled into a beautiful golfing community on Hilton Head Island, North Carolina, to enjoy their “golden years.” It wasn’t long, however, before Dr. McConnell found the life “bored him silly” and he asked himself, “Is this all I have left?”
Shortly thereafter, his next endeavor began to take shape. While driving on a muddy, rutted road one rainy morning, Dr. McConnell picked up a hitchhiker. As they talked, the man revealed that he and his wife were expecting a baby, and Dr. McConnell asked, “Where do you and your family get healthcare?”
“We don’t,” replied the man, “we can’t afford it and have no insurance.” In the coming weeks, the doctor picked up five more hitchhikers and received the same answer to that question. He knew then that he had to do something to help.
Dr. McConnell soon discovered that surrounding his affluent community was another large community in which more than one-third of families had no access to health care. He began by rallying his golfing buddies, also retired physicians, and together they recruited medical and non-medical volunteers and raised funds to open a Volunteers in Medicine Free Clinic in Hilton Head in 1993. Today, the clinic is staffed by a rotation of more than 600 volunteers and provides more than 30,000 patient visits per year.
Furthermore, the Hilton Head Island VIM Clinic sparked a movement that has spread across the country. There are now 87 such clinics in 28 states, serving over 95,000 patients. Across the Mid-South, VIM clinics are thriving and meeting the needs of thousands who had previously gone with little or no healthcare. Three are in Mississippi: Oxford, Meridian and Gautier.

Through the Eyes of Patients
Linda Brown of Oxford hasn’t met Dr. McConnell, but her life has been profoundly impacted by his caring heart, his vision and his action.
“It has been a godsend for me. I’m 62 and still working, but my job as a CNA (certified nursing assistant) doesn’t provide insurance and I don’t make enough to pay for it myself,” she said. Linda has multiple health issues, but until the Clinic was established, her conditions were going untreated.
“Now,” said Linda, “I can get what I need. And, it’s a place where everybody is treated with dignity. It makes you feel like you count for something. So, you can hold your head up and still accept the help.”
This atmosphere of respect is endemic to VIM clinics and is referred to as “a culture of caring.” It is the essence of every interaction and has an impact on everyone. In Linda’s words, “Because the clinic has been such a blessing to me, I want to give back too. As soon as I can retire, I will volunteer to help out there myself!”
In Gautier, patient Steven C. knows he owes his life to the VIM clinic there. Steven came to the clinic to receive some test results and was sitting comfortably in the waiting room. Suddenly, he felt severe chest pain, his arm went numb and he had trouble breathing. The staff noticed his distress and quickly called 911. He was having a heart attack and was taken to the hospital by ambulance and immediately into surgery.
“I would have died if it wasn’t for them,” said Steven. “I wouldn’t be here today if it was not for all the good work they do.”

A Volunteer’s Experience
Libby Bounds, a 66-year-old retired schoolteacher in Meridian volunteers every week at the Meridian VIM clinic. She has seen the community’s perception of the clinic change.
“At first, some people thought it was another hand-out. It’s not at all,” she said. “This is for people who would fall through the cracks without it. Lots of them work but the insurance premiums would cost more than they make. Some had good jobs and good lives but then got sick and couldn’t work and couldn’t get any healthcare. They don’t qualify for Medicaid and aren’t old enough for Medicare – so they had nothing.”
Sometimes a former student will come to the clinic. “At first, they might be embarrassed,” she said, “but it’s like family there. Now, they are comfortable and just appreciate the help.”
“My very favorite job at the clinic is when I get to call patients to tell them they have been approved for services. The absolute joy in their voices is incredible! Some have cried – they are that thankful,” she said. “As a schoolteacher, I didn’t get to hear that kind of joy very often and I love it!”

A Medical Director’s Perspective
Dr. Lee Valentine, Medical Director at Meridian’s VIM Clinic sees how the clinic enriches the lives of everyone involved.
“For myself,” he said, “I have been blessed to do what I love all these years – to care for the health of people. Along the way, people gave their time to teach me and help me along. Now, I want to give back.
“What I saw happening,” he continued, “was a trend of people using emergency rooms because they had no primary care. That’s a very bad place for your primary care. No preventive care can be given, and it creates an overuse and misuse of the ER, which makes costs go up for all. By providing a way for patients to receive primary and preventive care, conditions can be discovered before they become catastrophic.”
Dr. Valentine stressed that the entire community is needed to make the program work. Churches host fundraisers, clubs donate paper goods, corporations provide grants or supplies and medical partners provide lab services, x-rays and pharmaceuticals.
“They do it,” he said, “because they get it – they understand the concept, see the results and want to be part of it. It is definitely a win-win for all involved.”
This commitment to community service is being passed along to a new generation of physicians. Through Dr. Valentine’s efforts, family practice residency students who wish to “moonlight,” or work outside the program, must donate time to the VIM clinic.
“At first,” he said, “they might fuss and groan, but they come away with a completely different attitude. They actually see the impact they have on people’s lives and it means a great deal to them. Invariably, they end up feeling they are getting more out of the experience than the patients are.”
Like most others involved with Volunteers in Medicine Free Clinics across the country, Dr. Valentine has never met founder Dr. Jack McConnell. However, he has great appreciation for what he has created.
These words from Dr. McConnell have become the credo of the national Volunteers in Medicine organization because they express so beautifully the spirit that fuels everything:
“May we have eyes to see those rendered
invisible and excluded,
Open arms and hearts to reach out and
include them,
Healing hands to touch their lives with love,
And in the process heal ourselves.”

Read More in DeSoto Magazine online.