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Harrisonburg's Free Clinic Opens In Its New Home

Calvin Pynn

Harrisonburg’s free clinic closed at the end of 2020.  Nearly one year later, its successor has a permanent home, and it’s meeting pent-up demand. WMRA’s Calvin Pynn reports.

By the time the Blue Ridge Free Clinic had opened, patients in under-served communities had experienced a gap in healthcare.

Credit Blue Ridge Free Clinic

SUSAN ADAMSON: Six months ago, there was no free clinic in Harrisonburg, and that was a sad time.

Nurse Practitioner Susan Adamson was a volunteer provider at Harrisonburg-Rockingham Free Clinic, and knew that she and her staff at Blue Ridge would have their work cut out for them.

ADAMSON: Some people who had been free clinic patients in the past just dropped out, they stopped taking their medicines. People stopped taking their antidepressants, people stopped taking their insulin. We saw people who got very sick in the few months that there was no free clinic.

Some patients transferred to Harrisonburg Community Health Center. But for others who relied on the free clinic, care at the center still comes at a steep cost.

ADAMSON: They have a sliding scale, which is wonderful, but it’s not a free clinic. And we have no barriers.  We do no assessment for people’s income, because what we do here is what we want to do, we can give away whatever we want, because the community is providing it. So free visits, free assessments, social service assessments, counseling, dental care…

That care is provided entirely by 70 volunteers, many of whom are experienced medical professionals who see patients in house.  But it also includes a network of other providers beyond the clinic space – including cardiologists, dermatologists, and various primary care physicians in Harrisonburg have all pitched in to help patients, according to Lynne Eggert, the director of clinical programs.

Credit Blue Ridge Free Clinic
Nurse Practitioner Lynne Eggert is the director of clinical programs.

LYNNE EGGERT: We want to be flexible with our programming, and we want to always be in touch and in communication with other partners in the community, you know – where are the needs? How can we add in programs to shift our emphasis to help the community as a whole.  We don’t want to operate in a silo.

Blue Ridge Free Clinic is also partnered with JMU’s physician assistant program, where students see patients just as they did in the former Harrisonburg Rockingham Free Clinic. So far, they have seen more than 250 patients since launching in April when the Remote Area Medical Clinic – or RAM – saw patients needing free health care in Rockingham County.

Once word spread, space at the Free Clinic’s initial, temporary location filled up quickly, according to Adamson.

ADAMSON: It was in the same complex, but it was a lower-level building with only 1000 square feet, and we were elbow to elbow and very quickly exceeded capacity. And we’ve had eight to 15 calls every week from new patients, or people looking for where to go to see if we can get help for them.

Safety and physical distancing with COVID-19 also had to be considered with that space, according to Eggert.

EGGERT: I feel like in the smaller space, it was just logistically a challenge because our waiting room was able to accommodate maybe two people safely. So we would have people waiting in their cars, we’d have to institute other protocols to keep everyone safe, including the staff.

The clinic’s permanent space on Martin Luther King Jr. Way opened to the public two weeks ago with four exam rooms, a lab, and a behavioral health room among the clinic’s amenities. Most of the furniture was donated by other community organizations, with medical equipment donated from local doctors who had recently retired.

A bulk of the clinic’s funding also came from more than $78,000 donated during the Great Community Give in April. Medications – which, legally, must be unopened and in-date – have been mostly donated by community members and according to Adamson, insulin and inhalers are always needed at the clinic.

ADAMSON: Sometimes we just have to go ahead and buy insulin if we don’t have the particular brand somebody needs, but a single vial of insulin is $180.

That’s been especially important for Stephen Pendleton from Grottoes, who became a patient at the free clinic two weeks ago.

(Sound of PA student Jessica Gray taking Pendleton’s blood pressure).

Pendleton is diabetic and lost his health insurance when he was laid off from his job last year during the pandemic.

PENDLETON: I didn’t find a job right away, you know. And then I ran out of medication for my diabetes. My daughter made me an appointment here, once she found out about it, she said. ‘You’re going.”

Accepting help was a tough decision for Pendleton, although it’s something he advises others in a similar situation to seek out as well.

PENDLETON: Everyone in this office has been nothing but sweet, and understanding. I know it’s not an act, because they wouldn’t be doing this. But I feel like they genuinely care about me as a person. If you’re having doubts, look around you, and see what and who you would affect if you weren’t here.

Adamson said that at the end of the day, she’s satisfied with any amount of care they are able to provide free of charge.  That includes six patients in the early stages of cancer that the clinic’s staff identified while they were still treatable.

ADAMSON: It’s worth it if we see five patients in a day and we can change their lives.

The Blue Ridge Free Clinic is open three days a week – on Monday and Thursday mornings, and on Tuesday evenings.

Calvin Pynn is a radio reporter, writer, and photographer based in Harrisonburg, Virginia.
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