Physicians 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 childrens videos are readied in an overflow room.
Its 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 wont 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
dont have a regular doctor. "Were 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 wouldnt set foot in a church for a service dont 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 whats 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.
Tonights 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.
"Im 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 havent
made a commitment to Jesus at the start of the night will do so by the
end. "I have big expectations because weve 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
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 Blessmans
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 Gods
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.