A True Community Service: Free Clinic

FreeClinicCroppedEditor’s note: Lauree Purcell is a freelance writer and mother of two teenage daughters in Harrisonburg, Virginia.

I met Kathy Whitten about 15 years ago at church, and I’ve always been impressed with the many ways she energetically helps and befriends people throughout the community. I look up to her as an amazing role model because she’s truly inspiring. This is about her volunteer work at the Free Clinic, which has served the city of Harrisonburg and Rockingham County for 25 years—and I’m guessing there may be a similar clinic and volunteers in your own community.

Having someone to listen and guide them through the process as they unburden themselves of their problems is incredibly transformative

The path leading to Kathy’s involvement at the clinic involves a line like those in Family Circus cartoons, one leading in many directions throughout Kathy’s 50s. Her husband, Dr. Larry Whitten, is a retired gynecological surgeon who began taking mission trips to impoverished regions to perform free surgeries when their four children were quite young. Kathy wanted to get involved too, but waited until their children left home to get her nursing degree. They traveled together to Bolivia, Honduras, and low-income areas of Virginia to provide free medical services to individuals who had no other options.

The mission of Harrisonburg’s Free Clinic is to provide affordable health care services for low-income and uninsured adults, primarily through volunteer resources and community support. So it’s no wonder the Whittens became committed to helping this clinic succeed. Kathy served on the board of directors for two years before actually working there. She now volunteers at the reception desk every Monday morning, assessing whether patients need to be seen by a doctor right away and how they can best be helped. Her experience working with electronic medical records and reviewing charts at her former nursing job quickly made her a useful member of the clinic’s team.

Until a few months ago, Larry provided free gynecological services at the clinic, and he and Kathy were able to work together there on occasion. “It’s a big time commitment, especially right after the weekend when we sometimes take trips, but I look forward to Monday mornings and absolutely love my time in the clinic,” said Kathy. She described it as a place of grace where people are kind and patient with one another. She feels she has more time to ask questions and troubleshoot situations to provide the best care possible. Her coworkers and patients are like another family, because she knows and cares so much about them. Hepatitis C is a terribly serious disease, but Kathy is seeing patients getting completely cured because they have access to expensive medicines through the clinic’s partnership with pharmaceutical companies.

Kathy is excited that the clinic is now offering behavioral health services through a partnership with James Madison University. Counselors are helping patients deal with the financial stress of living at the poverty level. “The stress is like a powder keg that causes family members to have trouble being supportive of one another,” said Kathy. “Having someone to listen and guide them through the process as they unburden themselves of their problems is incredibly transformative.”

Kathy is concerned about the need for affordable preventative dental care. A few dentists in the area provide occasional appointment slots for free tooth extraction, but there is a two-month waiting period, with 30–50 people waiting at any given time for those slots. “If every local dentist would do one or two free extractions each month, it sure would make it easier for the dentists currently providing those extractions,” said Kathy. “Toothache is the number one reason for emergency room visits.”

The Free Clinic is making an effort to inform patients about how nutrition plays a role in health, since many suffer from the ravages of diabetes. Linda Morrison, a registered dietician, comes in to provide nutrition counseling by appointment and to teach a class on the subject. “While most people would prefer not to change the way they eat, it is an important service that can lead to improvements in quality of life,” said Kathy.

Kathy looks back fondly on her career in nursing and is glad she chose to go back to school after raising four children. “Hilda, a close neighbor-friend of twenty years, encouraged me to do that because she had been a nurse and saw that I could help people in this way,” said Kathy. Kathy’s son Seth lost his lower leg in an accident when he was 14, so Kathy became interested in nursing as she assisted in his recovery and helped elderly neighbors with their health problems.

Is there a free clinic in your community meeting the health needs of people in poverty? For every $1 raised, the Harrisonburg Free Clinic provides $7 worth of direct medical services. Ninety percent of the money raised comes from our local community. Each year, the clinic serves approximately 1,000 patients, most suffering from chronic disease, and provides over 4,500 health care appointments. In addition, the clinic annually provides over 25,000 thirty-day prescriptions, valued at $3.2 million. They provide such helpful services on many levels.


Comments? Questions? Or if you would like to be in touch with the writer, Lauree Purcell, just send to me: MelodieD@MennoMedia.org or Another Way, 1251 Virginia Avenue, Harrisonburg, VA 22802.