Health care from the heart
WORTHINGTON -- The waiting room at Worthington Chiropractic Clinic was overflowing with patients on Saturday morning, but few of those were waiting for a chiropractic adjustment. Each of the exam rooms served as office space for a medical practioner, and in a cramped scenario of well-organized chaos, patients were interviewed, assessed, given basic laboratory tests and treated for whatever ailed them.
Our Lady of Guadalupe Free Clinic -- a ministry of St. Mary's Catholic Church -- has been operating quarterly in Worthington since July 2011, using the chiropractic facilities as well as rooms at the St. Mary's Church rectory. The project was born from an assessment of needs in the parish and larger community, particularly among the immigrant population, explained the Rev. Jim Callahan, St. Mary's priest who also serves as the OLGFC clinical director.
"We wanted to zero in on one of the major issues in the immigrant community and the poor, and one of the major things was health care," he said, explaining that Our Lady of Guadalupe is patroness of the Americans and social justice, "so we thought she was pretty all-inclusive," as a name for the operation. "This is open to everyone, regardless of ethnicity or religious denomination. We're not there evangelizing."
The clinic is targeted specifically to people who are not covered by medical insurance.
"Health care here is very expensive," said the Rev. Luis Vargas, associate pastor at St. Mary's and associate clinical director for OLGFC. "Not everyone can pay."
According to information compiled in seeking grants for the clinic, it was estimated in 2010 that 15.8 percent of Nobles County residents, 2,820 people, were uninsured, compared to 9 percent statewide.
"Many people don't go to the doctor until they need to go to the emergency room, which increases expenses to the patient and the medical system," explains the grant information. "With preventative care and early diagnosis (as provided by the Our Lady of Guadalupe Clinic), the burden on emergency rooms could be alleviated."
"I have a friend who is a doctor at the Mayo Clinic and is also a deacon in the Catholic church," said Callahan. "I asked him about the possibility of coming over and seeing patients, and we did a three-day clinic. He was the only physician."
At that first OLGFC event in July 2011, Dr. David Plevak from the Mayo Clinic, with help from volunteer nurses, a certified nurse-midwife, a psychiatric practitioner and interpreter, saw to the medical needs of 20 patients
"Father Jim and I have been friends for about 20 years, and we were talking about the need over here," explained Plevak during a break between patients on Saturday morning. "So we both decided I would come over here and bring my black bag. That's all I brought the first time," he said, pointing to a small satchel in the corner of his makeshift office. "And now it's grown into this."
As both a physician and a Catholic deacon, Plevak has worked with the immigrant population in Rochester, where some free medical resources do exist, but no such program was in place in Worthington, he said.
"Why go to a foreign country on a medical mission," Plevak said, "when this is right in your own backyard?"
As word has spread -- both through the medical community and the prospective patients -- the clinic has grown.
"We decided to do the clinic every three months," said Callahan. "The next time, Dave asked if he could bring someone else, a physician's assistant affiliated with migrant health, and we had more interpreters and more nurses. ... At our last clinic, we saw 68 patients in one day and ended up having 10 physicians, six from Worthington. We've just had phenomenal support from Mayo, Avera and Sanford. They have all responded in such a positive way."
Recruiting his Mayo Clinic colleagues has been not been a difficult task, said Plevak, and Callahan has also gotten good cooperation from the local medical community.
For Saturday's clinic, 16 medical personnel made the trip from Rochester, joined by six doctors from the local Avera-McKennan and Sanford Health facilities -- physicians representing 13 countries, Callahan noted -- and a battalion of other volunteers to deal with the needs of the 70 scheduled patients. A waiting list had 20 more names. Additionally, a cardiologist provided adult education on heart disease; and Nobles Public Health offered HIV and STD testing. Local pharmacies have also cooperated in filling prescription services.
"We have everything from kids getting immunizations and school physicals to people who are terminally ill," Callahan described. "We have a Ph.D. coming who specializes in domestic violence and women's issues. We have alcohol and drug counseling, gynecology, pediatrics."
Staffing the lab area were Colleen Fagan and Maria Willrich of the Mayo Clinic. Willrich, a native of Brazil, is currently a fellow in the laboratory medicine department at Mayo. The program is for two years, and she's been in Rochester for four months.
"One of my consultants forwarded me the email about this, and I felt immediately connected," she related about how she became an OLGFC volunteer. "It said that Spanish interpreters were highly sought, and I don't speak Spanish -- my country's language is Portuguese -- but it's similar enough to Spanish that I can understand it."
The Mayo volunteers arrived Friday evening and, after Mass and supper at St. Mary's, spent the night with host families. After breakfast and an early Mass, the clinic opened for business at 9 a.m., and patients were scheduled through to 5 p.m. Supper would be served at St. Mary's, and after spending a second night, the volunteers returned to Rochester on Sunday.
Although it was her first visit to Worthington, Willrich said she already felt much at home and would definitely be back to help again.
"We come here and sleep in a stranger's home, but it didn't feel strange at all," she said. "I don't know who feels more appreciation here, the volunteers or the patients."
Another of the volunteers, Isaac Palma, a second-year medical student at the University of Minnesota, didn't have to spend the night with strangers, as his family lives in Worthington.
"My sister told me about this and about Dr. Plevak, so I got in touch with him and asked if I could come," said Palma. "I grew up here, and I can't tell you how many people I have greeted here today, people that I know. It's just nice to give back to the community. It feels great.
While grateful for the use of the Worthington Chiropractic facilities, the clinic organizers hope to eventually secure a permanent home for OLGFC, as well as grant funding to make the clinic more than a periodic offering. OLGFC has a 14-member board of directors with representatives from the Catholic church, local parish, local community and statewide medical community.
"When we started, we didn't know how it was going to go," Callahan said. "Now our dream is to eventually establish a permanent facility that is open seven days a week and have special clinics. We've started with mental health, and we'd like to get a dentist on board, too."
Plevak is already scheduled to return to Worthington in a month to see more patients and provide follow-up care.
"It's all about relationships," he said. "Father Jim and I have a relationship, and I have a relationship with the people of Worthington. They see me as their doctor. If you look at the demographics of our country, even among the people who have some access to medical care, they don't have a clinic or a doctor they can call their own ... and it's at its most extreme form with the poor, especially the undocumented."
As the scope of OLGFC has grown, Callahan has been astounded by how everything has come together.
"This is the hand of God working, because it's certainly not us," he said. "... All along the way, there hasn't been one road block put up. And it's the only clinic in town where you can get physical and spiritual help."
One encounter from Saturday's clinic illustrated to Callahan just how important the clinic has become, particularly to the local immigrant population.
"One man was going out the door, and he was crying," Callahan related. "I asked him what was wrong, and he said he was crying because he's never been to a place where he's been treated with so much respect."
Anyone in need of medical services who would like to schedule an appointment or anyone who would like to volunteer to help with the clinic should contact St. Mary's Church, 376-6005. Monetary donations and memorial gifts can be sent to Our Lady of Guadalupe Free Clinic, c/o St. Mary's Parish, 1215 Seventh Ave., Worthington 56187.
Features Editor Beth Rickers can be reached at 376-7327.