Last year, I joined scores of millions of other people in the United States who are medical nomads, living without insurance for our medical, dental, and vision needs. We move from place to place to receive whatever care we can beg for when we need it enough to beg for it.
For those of us with chronic medical issues, our day-to-day lives feature a lot of scavenging and scrounging for medications from this company and that agency, begging for affordable care from one doctor and then another, filling out forms and then filling them out again, carrying around our medical histories in our wallets in lieu of The Precious: the all-important insurance card.
We follow the brief rains that bring relative plenty, laden with our medication lists that change with the crop of the week, our medical histories, our paperwork.
This weekend was a red-letter one for many of us medical nomads in this area of North Carolina: a free clinic weekend for medical screenings, dental care, and vision screenings. I was one of yet-uncounted hundreds of people who spent much of the weekend at Richland Creek Community Church in Wake Forest, receiving care (in the truest sense of the word) from professionals who volunteered their time, their passions and compassions, their love of people, and their most professional of efforts to serve folks who cannot afford to make appointments and come to their offices for paid care.
[I'm an atheist, and one of the challenges for me in life without health insurance is that almost all of the free clinics in the United States are offered by places of worship. I want to say that right out front: It is humbling and often humiliating not to be able to pay for the care I need, and most particularly because I'm accepting the good-faith work (not so much a pun as a statement of genuine principle of religious organizations) of religions I don't believe in. It makes me feel hypocritical, unworthy, beggarly, and ungrateful. It angers me that this basic human right is left almost wholly and entire to the faith communities rather than ourselves as larger communities regardless of faith, lack thereof, or belief systems.
There's a rich (pardon THAT pun) concatenation of philosophical, ideological, and spiritual conversations to be had about all of that and more. I have some of these conversations with myself often, sometimes with friends, and sometimes with complete strangers. It's another diary altogether, though. But it's an elephant in this room and I want to assure you that I see it there. Right there. Oh, yes.]
My weekend at Richland Creek Community Church's free medical/dental/vision clinic began in the wee hours yesterday, waking at 4 a.m. to drive almost an hour to the church. As anyone who's ever attended a free clinic knows, waking even that early put me hours behind the hundreds of others who literally camped out to be sure of getting the care they needed most. For most people, this was dental care.
Vision care is a luxury for most of us who live in the margins and even for a large majority of people in the United States who are on the lower end of "middle class" or in poverty. Medical care is a little easier to obtain, but proper vision is the steak dinner of good health for so many.
Dental care, however, is a vital necessity. Inadequate dental care can lead to agonizing pain, illness, and even death. Yet it is virtually impossible to obtain without pricey up-front payments. Payment for exams, regular cleanings, and nip-it-in-the-bud gum and tooth care should be a basic part of any family or individual's budget, but they're luxuries for many of us, and that's why the mainstay of many free dental clinics are tooth extractions.
Whether we were there on Friday, Saturday, or both days, I want to emphasize how lucky we were: for every one of us who got through the doors in time to receive a number in hopes we could get care, there were at least three who were turned away. This small church community has offered four annual clinics and has learned from experience that first astonished and then schooled them: the need for medical/dental/vision care among the low-income populations of the area is far, far greater than the ability to fill that need.
Most of those attending the clinic triaged themselves to choosing extractions. They would have to leave cavities for another clinic, or for a later time when the decay hits the nerve and kills the tooth, thus requiring another extraction (because root canals and crowns are laughably out of the budget realities of most of us). Cleanings likewise would have to be put off, and x-rays were available only for those whose extractions were complicated.
Once the crowds registered and received our numbers and the lucky few hundreds of us were told we could be fit into that day's service, we were divided into the services we were seeking and assigned a waiting room. That was our base for the day. We could then spend the intervening hours in other areas of the church's clinic offerings, coming back every once in a while to check on the progress of the all-important list.
I can't say enough about the Richland Creek volunteers and the planning and organization they put into this weekend. There was a wide variety of services available, and there was a top-notch childcare station available that provided structured and unstructured play areas and activities for children, as well as food and beverages. Everyone was invited to take advantage of the medical screenings that took care of the basics, such as blood pressure, blood sugar measurements, child-development and growth measurement, and nutritional counseling. There were chiropractic and massage-therapy services, a Saturday cardiology clinic (!), general vision screening, and selected vision-care appointments for those most in need. There was a private area for people to "shop" for no-cost clothing that parishioners had donated and that had been carefully collected, cleaned, sorted, and organized.
I'm sure there are services I'm missing or forgetting. Forgive me for that. It's a testament to the untold hours of planning and community engagement that so much was put together so well for this one weekend of service.
There are no superlatives superlative enough for the efforts of the hundreds of volunteers from the Richland Creek Church community to put together the weekend's clinic and care. They were absolutely unflagging in their energies, enthusiasm, patience, and kindness. Anyone who could speak Spanish offered time to translate and just to assure people that they wouldn't have to go into a clinic without someone to make sure they understood everything. It was nothing at all for any of the volunteers to dash across the church campus to locate someone who's List Number for dental care was coming up but who needed to be found at one of the other service areas. They located shawls and blankets for those who were chilled, ice water for those who were hot and parched, children who'd dashed off without their parents, food for those who were peckish ... there was no end of little treasures of kindness they offered, always with a warm and genuine smile.
The most telling thing about these volunteers? They all wore lanyards featuring badges that on one side gave their name and on the other side said, "ASK ME. I'M HERE TO HELP," but I never saw anyone wear their badges with their name sides facing forward. They were simply there to help.
Those of use who whose numbers were within a close range at the dental clinics' lists got to know each other pretty well. My little group featured Thomas, Edith, Rosa, Rose, Rosita (well, Rosa, but she let us call her Rosita so the staff/volunteers could keep the Roses/Rosas straight), Michael, Michelle, and a few others who didn't mind becoming part of our little group community.
Michael and Rose are originally from Kenya but have lived in the United States most of their lives, though they're new to North Carolina. Michael is a natural clown; he and his straight-man half-sister Rose kept us all in stitches with their banter. They both work minimum-wage jobs (each has more than one job; Michael has three) that offer no benefits beyond hourly wages. We all know that paying for even a single root canal and/or crown is impossible for minimum wage earners.
Edith is a soft-spoken Nigerian American with a quick smile for everyone and a natural compassion for children. She is a hairdresser and often volunteers her own salon time for people who cannot afford haircuts. She hopes that next year, she'll be able to find a portable salon station with sanitation facilities for a hair-care clinic, offering special services for children suffering from head lice. "It is so embarrassing for them," Edith said. "They cannot afford the special shampoos and their families often cannot afford time off from work when they are not allowed to go to school because of their infections, so it's a double shame for them to have their heads shaved completely just so they can go to school."
Doug camped out on the church grounds the whole weekend and was the first patient both Friday and Saturday. A Vietnam War veteran, he's been homeless for a number of years and is an experienced clinic camper. He had chosen the Richland Creek Church clinic for the fillings and extractions he needed because of the high reputation of the dentists who volunteered their services: "Everyone knows they're good at those painkilling injections." A couple months ago, Doug camped out for another medical clinic at a church in another part of Wake County. That church offered him a small apartment, but Doug likes his free-spirited life -- at least during the warm seasons in North Carolina.
Because I speak just enough Spanish to be dangerous but not helpful, I was the Jerry Lewis of translators for the group. We women kept up a running banter-gag using Spanish to talk mock-discreetly about the handsome dentists who were volunteering their time; the Spanish-speaking men giggled and offered a few choice comments, and the English-speaking men rolled their eyes and let us know we were keeping no secrets from them with our attempts to keep secrets! I had to be careful to let everyone know that my Spanish is too weak to be of any actual use; the need for Spanish translators was so great but the availability of good interpreters so relatively scarce that I could easily have harmed more than helped someone who needed a careful translation in the care transactions.
Now that Texas, Arizona, and other border-area states have instituted "brown bigotry" laws that discriminate against people who "look illegal," North Carolina has experienced vast explosions in its Spanish-speaking populations. Wake County, a predominantly urban area that has fared better than many other counties in terms of unemployment and growth, has seen its Hispanic/Latino population grow by more than 1,500% in the past five years. One out of four babies born in Wake County is born to a Spanish-speaking family. (Detractors of this demographic shift in the area forget that it's this very growth that has insulated Wake County from some of the worst of the recession's tolls, thanks to regressive sales taxes that hit unemployed, underemployed, and off-the-payroll workers the hardest.)
As an inveterate talker (UNDERSTATEMENT ALERT!!) and joiner who could understand most of the conversations taking place around me (I'm SUCH a talker than I am at least conversant in six languages and know many phrases at least a dozen others), I enjoyed being part of all the activities of the weekend. I liked being in the waiting rooms with people from all walks of life and all the areas of the earth. I loved being asked to dash over to another area of the church to negotiate some cultural/religious issues for families from India, eastern Europe, the Middle East, South and Central America. I relished the chance to reach into my Mary Poppins backpack, pull out some Netroots Nation 2011 business-card wallets that I'd transformed into mini-sewing kits, and teach a little group of grade schoolers how to sew on paper napkins. It was delightful to have the chance to do my little Tamil-language stand-up act that utilizes all 29 of the Tamil words in my wee vocabulary. It felt good to be the "room grandmother" who could provide a little comfort to children anxious when their parents' numbers came to the top of the list, to teach them clapping or let's-go-faster-faster-faster songs my own grandmother used to teach me.
But most of all, I was humbled to be in the midst of a place where so much need met with so much care.
If you're a Facebook friend, you may have read my post about that one question that made the weekend difficult: "If you were to die today, are you certain that you will have eternal life with God in Heaven?" It was on the registration form I filled out, and it was posed in person at each day's "checkout" station: In order to leave at the end of each day's clinic, attendees were required to answer that question to a church pastor. It was the question that brought me to tears, and the one that fills me now with so many emotions that I cannot begin to sort them out. And I could see that in the faces and experiences of many others who were grateful for the weekend's clinic services: the one brief moment that transformed transactions of faith and humility into transactions between faith and humiliation.
But it was the briefest of moments, really, in what was (for me and for hundreds of others) more than 20 hours of traveling, waiting, receiving, giving, eating, laughing, crying, wincing, delivering, serving, and so very much more. I am unspeakably grateful for the chance to see clearly again, for the beautifully and painlessly filled cavity, for the juice, for the camaraderie of servers and served, for the massage that was knowledgeably offered by a specialist in fibromyalgia care, for the listen to my heart, and for the coming together in a vast marketplace of medical nomads and the people encamped and settled ... but who know that tents may beckon for them one day.
Thank you, Richland Creek Community Church, and to all of the medical, dental, and vision professionals and each of the volunteers who provided this free clinic weekend.
You did far more than hospitably host the tent of this medical nomad; you mended it. I left you this bright Saturday afternoon with far fewer tatters than when I arrived in the wee dark early hours yesterday and again this morning.