Hundreds Receive Free Medical Care

Mar 4, 2019

For the first time in Harrisonburg, the nonprofit Remote Area Medical clinic offered anyone who needed it free dental, vision and medical care. 

Organizers say they provided more than $300,000 worth of medical services to hundreds of patients during the first weekend in March. WMRA’s Christopher Clymer Kurtz reports.

Ahead of time, organizers said they expected to treat several hundred people on Saturday and Sunday [March 2 & 3]. But by 10:00 Saturday morning, the volunteer outside of the triage area was already calling tickets well into that range.

RAM VOLUNTEER: 399. Alright. Is there a 400 here?

Inside, Harrisonburg resident Fera Al Barzanji was waiting to provide interpretation for Kurdish and Arabic speakers.

AL BARZANJI: I feel it’s like a party. Everyone is happy, everyone wants to get soon inside, so they’re excited, and we are, too.

Remote Area Medical, or RAM, is based in Tennessee. It offers about 85 clinics a year across the country, and recently held its 1,000th. Generally, 65 percent of RAM patients come for dental care, 30 percent come for vision care, and 5 percent come for medical care, all free, all provided by volunteers from near and far.

These patients – from Lexington, Mount Jackson, northern Virginia – had come to the Rockingham County Fairgrounds just south of Harrisonburg. A RAM staff person told me that by midnight on cold, rainy Friday, the 140th person had arrived to line up. He had walked more than eight hours – 22 miles – from Timberville.

On Saturday morning, RAM CEO Jeff Eastman said he expected the clinic would serve 500-600 people on that day alone.

EASTMAN: The hardest part of this job is turning people away at the end of the day, but I believe we’ve got plenty of providers here to take care of everybody.

RAM was invited here by a community host group led by a James Madison University professor who has volunteered at other RAM clinics, Laura Trull.

TRULL: I’ve cried 20 times. I mean they started putting the tarps down in the dental area, yesterday, and I started crying, cause I was like, people are going to get dental services, right here. There’s been so many times I’ve just [been] moved to tears because it’s happening. It’s happening.

Dental teams surrounded rows of patients in the fairgrounds exhibit hall. Out in the parking lot, Harrisonburg resident Shane Alicie had gauze in his mouth, and spat blood onto the gravel.

SHANE ALICIE: Sorry, I’m not swallowing that. Yeah, I had five teeth pulled.

CLYMER KURTZ: Oh – no way.

ALICIE: Yeah. … I’m coming back tomorrow. I got a couple cavities they’re going to fill, so this is great. It’s really awesome what they’re doing.

A short walk away, in another building, Harrisonburg resident April Bare was seen by retired ophthalmologist Calvin Miller, a frequent RAM volunteer who lives near Broadway. 

CALVIN MILLER: How long has it been since you’ve had your eyes checked?

BARE: I’m going to say about five, six years.

MILLER: And you’re nearsighted. You weren’t wearing glasses when you came?

BARE: Huh-uh. My son broke them a couple years ago, and I just –

MILLER: You’ve been doing without them.

MILLER [interview comments]: It’s a way to keep my fingers in the field that I was trained and that I worked in.

MILLER: Alright, well, let’s take a look and see what we can see.

MILLER [interview comments]: I practiced in an area that was medically underserved pretty much my entire life and that still exists even in areas like Harrisonburg which we don’t think of as a medically unserved area, but there are lots and lots of folks who for one reason or another don’t have access to some levels of eye care.

MILLER: Well, your eyes look perfectly healthy. You are nearsighted. Let me put a couple of notes here, and we’ll get you on your way to get your eyeglass fixed up.

BARE: Okay – Thank you.

We walked to another building.

CLYMER KURTZ: It must be difficult to function without glasses.

BARE: Oh yeah, I can’t hardly see anything.

RAM VOLUNTEER: Go in this door at this table they’ll show you where to go next.

Here, glasses frames were laid out on tables for Bare to choose from; her lenses would be ground and fitted to the frames in the mobile RAM unit parked outside. Preston Jones of Staunton was also picking out frames, for new bifocals.

CLYMER KURTZ: Are these a replacement pair for you?

PRESTON JONES: Replacement pair. I left mine at a restaurant.

CLYMER KURTZ: And you don’t have vision insurance to replace them.

JONES: No sir. It’s a good thing going on here. It’s a real good thing.

Back in the main building, patients could learn about community services and insurance options, including expanded Medicaid.

I asked RAM CEO Jeff Eastman about what this busy RAM clinic says about our society.

EASTMAN: Just the state of healthcare in America. No matter where you are on the political spectrum, this is what’s going on in our country. I would love nothing more [than] for us to be put out of business.

He doesn’t see that happening anytime soon, but he is sure about the difference RAM is making in the lives of its patients. Here again is Shane Alicie, after his dental extraction:

ALICIE: It is such a relief. Like the pressure, when they take it out – it’s unbelievable. It’s like, ahhh… Thank you.