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Physician’s vision results in free health care to needy

(March 10, 2002)

Tables and chairs are being set up in the waiting area.

Ear-probe thermometers, blood pressure cuffs and tongue depressors are prepared in the screening section. A toy box and children’s videos are readied in an overflow room.

It’s 5:30 p.m. Thursday in the basement of First Assembly of God in Des Moines and a beehive of active volunteers are transforming Sunday school rooms into a free clinic. Although patients won’t be seen for another half hour, they already are lining up for the first-come, first-served ministry. The church has designated a corner for medical exams and supplies storage.

Clean bill of health: Dr. James Blessman interacts with patient Clarisa Calvo at the clinic.

The weekly free clinic is the brainchild of Dr. James L. Blessman, a member of First Assembly. As founder and executive director of the umbrella nonprofit Health Care Access Network, Blessman has started free weekly clinics in 17 Iowa locations. HCAN reaches many Iowans who have jobs, but little or no health insurance.

With the vision of using volunteers from local churches, Blessman in the past decade has recruited 200 doctors and 1,000 non-physician volunteers to donate their services. In addition to the free labor, the use of facilities is donated along with most of the equipment and medicines. The state covers malpractice insurance for the doctors providing the free care. The network of clinics provides free primary medical care, no strings attached, to those who likely don’t have a regular doctor. "We’re just a tiny piece of the safety net," Blessman says.

From an upstairs meeting of young adults, contemporary worship music can be heard faintly. Many patients who wouldn’t set foot in a church for a service don’t mind doing so for free health care that is run as efficiently and professionally as commercial clinics. The patients who gather are a mixture, representing the neighborhood in northwest Des Moines: a white elderly woman, a Hispanic family of five, a black teenager.

Typically, three nurses, one doctor, a medical student and half a dozen nonmedical volunteers will be on hand from 6 to 8 p.m. All likely have put in a full day of work in their regular jobs. An average of 15 patients are seen each Thursday night, receiving everything from bronchitis medication to measles immunizations.

Tonight, Diane Messer, a full-time organs transplant nurse at Iowa Methodist Medical Center, is a volunteer at the free clinic. "All patients need to have equal rights to equal health care," says Messer, who has been in nursing for 25 years. She spends about 10 minutes with each of her patients, doing a basic assessment of what’s wrong, checking vital signs and finding out about allergies and medications.

Messer, who attends First Assembly, volunteers at least once a month. If she has time, she asks patients if they believe in God and pray. "I recognize that illness can be a time of spiritual uncertainty," she says.

Tonight’s on-call doctor is Dr. James P. Lovell, a cardiologist who has been volunteering monthly since the clinic opened six years ago. For a specialist who spends his daily life in the intricacies of the heart, treating a common cold is a bit of a departure.

"I’m just a cardiologist," says Lovell, who also sings in the First A/G choir. "Sometimes I wonder if I should be seeing sick babies. But this is a place where God wants me to be. In a sense, this is a missions outreach. This is the place where I can make a small contribution."

Sometimes a diagnosis and treatment can change a life. At one clinic, a doctor determined that a baby had phenylketonuria, a genetic disorder that results in mental retardation if not caught early and treated with a special diet.

Lovell engages in good-natured banter with a high school student at the clinic for a basketball physical. The cardiologist asks Garrett Gordon, a first-year student at Hoover High School, what position he plays and how the team is going to do. Eventually he asks the patient whether he goes to church.

Before leaving, patients have the option of counselors praying with them. As they are most weeks, Denny and Joyce Spencer are at the clinic ready to offer spiritual guidance. "Almost everyone lets us pray with them after they receive medical treatment," Joyce says.

Denny believes those who haven’t made a commitment to Jesus at the start of the night will do so by the end. "I have big expectations because we’ve invited God into this room," he says.

This evening, Robert Gonzales, a good-looking 17-year-old North High School senior who is at the clinic for the first time for a basketball physical, makes Jesus his Savior after talking with the Spencers. "They told me how to accept God in my life," he says. Those who make a salvation decision receive a free Bible, discipleship materials and church information.

"Adding a spiritual component to the clinic is what makes it really effective," says John M. Palmer, senior pastor of First A/G. "The clinic is a tool that can minister to the physical, emotional and spiritual well-being of a person."

The cost to HCAN for each patient is $21 per visit, one-tenth of what a trip to a hospital emergency room runs. The entire annual $313,000 HCAN budget comes from private funds and no government money is used. The clinics are dependent upon individuals, congregations, patient donations and private grants to keep going. Blessman is continually on the hunt for more corporate sponsors.

The most ambitious free clinic is La Clínica de la Esperanza (Clinic of Hope), opened by Blessman’s group in 1994. Now there are three local health care providers coordinating services at the facility, which is open every weekday and has three registered nurses on staff. The clinic is located in southeast Des Moines where many poor, undocumented Hispanics work in meatpacking plants. La Clínica is expected to treat 10,000 patients a year.

Blessman had practiced family medicine in Des Moines for years, but recent overseas short-term missionary health care trips stirred his heart toward poor and spiritually lost people in Third World countries. At 56, he has reached the point in life where most doctors are winding down and looking forward to a comfortable retirement. Instead, he and his wife, Beth, recently became missionary associates with the Assemblies of God. They will be taking medical team and disaster response trips with the outreach HealthCare Ministries, bringing God’s love and healing to people around the world.

– John W. Kennedy in Des Moines

Those interested in starting a free clinic in an Assemblies of God church may contact Blessman at: Jameslblessman@aol.com.

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