August 13, 2011 8:24:00 PM
Jan Swoope - [email protected]
"It was his idea," Dr. James Woodard smiled, gesturing toward his cohort, Dr. Alan Williams, sitting only a few feet away. "I just jumped on his back and have been riding it ever since. He was the main guy; I was the cheerleader."
Williams countered, "It was James who really took the ball and got it going, put the legs to it."
The truth is, both Columbus physicians are reluctant to be in the spotlight. But on the tenth anniversary of the day the Good Samaritan Medical Clinic opened its doors, it''s inevitable the story of how it came to be is revisited.
For a few rare, quiet minutes Wednesday, the busy doctors settled into chairs in the compact waiting room of the clinic at 520 College St. With them was Kathy Tentoni, who came on board as executive director 11 years ago, before the first nail had been hammered.
All three stepped out on faith then -- faith that if they researched enough, talked enough, campaigned enough, prayed enough, the community would embrace the vision of a clinic offering a lifeline to the working uninsured -- free primary care to qualified residents of Lowndes County.
A hand up, not a hand out
Williams and Woodard discovered they shared concern for those who fall between the ever-widening cracks in mainstream health care. People who work, but are uninsured, for whatever reason.
"They''re doing the best they can, trying to do right by themselves and their families," said Williams. "But, if you work, you can''t be on Medicaid. If you''re not old enough, you can''t get Medicare. And a lot of employers aren''t able to offer health insurance these days."
For a long 18 months, the champions of the clinic concept spread the message -- to colleagues, congregations and civic clubs. Supported by a steering committee, they studied feasibility and similar clinics elsewhere, developed plans and searched for funding. And they didn''t give up.
"We were just a couple of doctors with a crazy idea," said Woodard.
The vision caught fire.
"So many people gave their time, physical effort and financial support ... and it was still just a concept," said Williams, humbled still by the huge response.
"Some of them have probably logged more hours in here than I have,'' Woodard stated, praising contractors, plumbers, electricians and others who donated sweat, skills and materials to transform an empty tire store -- property made available by First United Methodist Church -- into a functional clinic with examination rooms and pharmacy space.
Casting her eyes around the clinic, Tentoni observed, "Everything you see is donated."
Accountants and attorneys contributed their expertise. A board of directors was formed. Volunteers were recruited. Support from the hospital system in Columbus, non-profit foundations, churches and a broad cross-section of the public made it possible to open the doors to the first patient on Aug. 16, 2001.
"It was exciting finally being open," said Tentoni, remembering that day. She is Good Samaritan''s only paid staff, and the diligent heart of daily operations at the facility that takes no federal, state or local governmental funding. Woodard serves as medical director. Williams is currently president of the clinic''s board.
Today, a rotation of about 15 physicians and an additional 35 or so professional and lay volunteers see patients each Thursday evening by appointment, or screen eligible patients Monday through Friday.
"We couldn''t do any of this without our volunteers," Tentoni stressed. "They are people who know there is a need. They see it in the community, they don''t have to hear it from someone else."
Pharmacist Robert White and Pharmacy Technician Mary Lou Spencer are two of the faithful who have been there since Day One. Medications are a prime component in the clinic''s ability to keep its patients in the work force.
At one time, Good Samaritan received a notable quantity of donated medicines from pharmaceutical suppliers and doctors'' offices. Several industry and economic factors have caused "that river to slow to a trickle," said White. Now, many of the medications are procured through Patient Assistance programs.
Longtime volunteer Kathy Read said, "We''re treating people there that have chronic ailments, diabetes, breathing problems, stomach problems. But the No. 1 thing is probably high blood pressure, and if these people couldn''t get their medications here, I don''t know what they would do."
For truck driver Jackie Anderson, the clinic and those medicines are a Godsend. Following open heart surgery, "My medicine was about $600 a month, and every time I''d go for a doctor visit, it''d be about $300," said the 58-year-old, who drives a tanker to dairy barns. "If it wasn''t for Good Samaritan, I guess I''d just have to stop my medicines because I couldn''t afford it."
Former patient Martha Eskridge is currently in rehab following a fourth bout with cancer.
"At the time I was selected for the clinic, I''d had cancer three times, so I was pretty much uninsurable. It was such a blessing for me to be a part of it." Eskridge, a church secretary who now qualifies for Medicare, admits she can''t say enough good things about Good Samaritan. "The staff, the volunteers, they''re just precious -- and Kathy Tentoni, wow, what a lady."
Like several others, Melody Vydas has been a volunteer for a decade.
"I was very new to Columbus and went to a group where Kathy spoke. She really articulated the vision the two physicians had," said the registered nurse. "I think we all really feel an investment in the health of those who find themselves in the position of choosing between paying for rent or food, or going to see a doctor."
Because the clinic isn''t burdened with the strictures and administrative tasks of filing insurance, patient care is streamlined.
"This is the way doctors practiced medicine 50 years ago," Woodard said, smiling. "I''ve had days when I''d leave the office and be all wound up, then come here to see patients and leave here feeling good."
"We''ve had doctors tell us it''s relaxing for them," added Tentoni.
One current patient, a social worker in her 40s who asked to remain anonymous, is sensitive to the less-stressful atmosphere and genuine caring she feels at Good Samaritan.
"You can tell it on Thursday nights when you come in; the nurses have smiles on their faces and treat you like you''re the most important person at that time," said the uninsured mother of three.
"My husband lost his job and, with it, the family''s health insurance. This has been such a blessing; there are so many good doctors here. ... You never know who might end up without insurance; next it could be the CEO of a big company. Nobody wants to find themselves in this situation."
On the occasion of its 10th anniversary, the well-run clinic is fulfilling the vision that started with two doctors.
The community is invited to a reception Tuesday from 4-6 p.m. at 520 College St.
"It is a celebration of the 10 years, but we also want to let both potential patients and other volunteers know who we are and that we''re still here," said Williams. "And there are probably some people who contributed, but have never had a chance to step foot in here."
Woodard reflected what he and Williams feel, and no doubt what every other Good Samaritan volunteer would echo: "We get more blessed than the patients do. It could be me, and I''d hope someone would help me."
Editor''s note: To inquire about screening criteria at the Good Samaritan Clinic, call 662-244-0044.
Jan Swoope is the Lifestyles Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.