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Dr. Frank J. Bia was among more than a dozen AmeriCares volunteers who took part in the National Association of Free Clinics C.A.R.E. – Communities Are Responding Everyday – one-day free clinic in Hartford, Connecticut on February 3. Here are his thoughts and impressions from the event, which provided free, primary care for 1,000 children and adults without health insurance.
First there was a man who had run out of blood pressure medications long ago and was at serious risk of a heart attack or a stroke.
Then there was a woman with an angry skin abscess on her back the size of a golf ball. Within an hour it was removed and she had a prescription for antibiotics to prevent the infection from spreading.
But the saddest of all was the young man who was beginning to show symptoms of colon cancer – a disease that killed both his father and grandfather – but he could not afford the colonoscopy that might provide a diagnosis and potentially save his life.
These were some of the patients I examined during the National Association of Free Clinics one-day free clinic for the uninsured in Hartford on February 3.
As a physician, I was both intrigued and embarrassed by what I observed at this event. It drew residents from across Connecticut and Massachusetts to the Connecticut Convention Center in Hartford. I was intrigued by the well-choreographed passage of nearly 1,000 patients through screening, laboratory testing and medical evaluation by an equally large team of volunteers. But at the same time, it was embarrassing to see so many people who had fallen through wide cracks in a dysfunctional health care system.
Some of the patients I treated are unemployed; others work jobs that don’t offer health insurance. No matter their situation, each came with a story more heart-breaking than the next. At times it was difficult to simply listen because they were all so clearly aware of the risks they were being forced to take.
But for just one day we were all working together – nurses, doctors, social workers and volunteers – to diagnose their health problems and refer them to available providers in their home communities for follow-up care. Some left with prescriptions for medications they can fill for only a few dollars at the drugstore. Others were referred to clinics in their home communities to get them on track again to meaningful health care.
For some of the participants, the 1,200 free clinics nationwide like the AmeriCares Free Clinic of Bridgeport, where I practice, may be their only refuge right now. Others will receive care at federally qualified health centers and nonprofit health clinics. Representatives from these facilities around the state were on hand to make appointments and give out information.
In only seven hours, over a thousand volunteers worked to bring 1,000 of our uninsured neighbors into the health care system. For some, the one-day free clinic prevented an emergency room visit. For others it was a first step toward having their chronic health care needs finally addressed. Hopefully patients left the convention center with both the information and the motivation they need to do just that – before they end up in the ER with a stroke, bacterial sepsis from an untreated abscess or colon cancer that could have been prevented.