BILOXI, Miss. (WLOX) - It started as a post-Katrina medical clinic that took care of anybody who showed up because, at the time, there was a need.
But that free health clinic at Bethel Lutheran Church in Biloxi eventually outgrew it’s home and it’s mission now has evolved into serving the uninsured.
“Because there’s so many of them that have no insurance, and therefore no way to access health care," explained clinic director Judy Jones.
Jones and her team of volunteers operate out of a small block building at the Suncoast Villa public housing complex in Biloxi. Two days a week, patients receive free medical care from a team of Nurse Practitioners, RNs and others who understand the value of a healthy life.
Many of their patients are the working poor, often they are at at some level of homelessness, Jones said.
Most suffer from diabetes, hypertension and heart conditions. The clinic serves to keep these people out of hospital emergency rooms where the poor often turn for health care.
Jones has a staff of about 25 volunteers that work varied shifts over the two days the clinic is open. There is more work that has to be done the rest of the week, as well.
“It’s not a singular thing, it’s a team effort by all the staff because we really have caring staff,” Jones said.
The volunteers come from across the Coast, and even across the country, just like they did in the post-Katrina days at the church.
Ria Bombard is a snowbird from upstate New York. She heard about the clinic several years ago when she was looking for volunteer opportunities. The semi-retired emergency room registered nurse is now a regular part of their staff.
“The word has to be selfless,” Bombard said of the workers who volunteer their time at the clinic. “We are such a band of sisters here, it is absolutely incredible. There’s no ego to play with for the most part. Everybody can do something from taking care of cardiac people to cleaning a bathroom.”
That dedication is not lost on the patients.
Catherine Garfield of Biloxi doesn’t have insurance, and her co-workers were concerned about a health issue she had. They suggested she try Bethel Free Clinic. She has only visited the clinic twice, but is happy with the way they treat their patients.
“I was very impressed with the staff, they’re very nice, they’re very professional, they ask questions, they’re not in a hurry, it’s not like they’re being paid to see poor people,” she said.
“We want to make sure that they are being treated nicely,” Jones said. “And given what they need to take care of themselves, to do self care.”
“It’s a godsend,” said Keith McMullen of Saucier. “People that don’t have insurance, don’t have a lot of income, they can come here, they can get medicine for free if they have it, if not they give you a prescription to go somewhere to get your medicine, They don’t charge you for your visits.”
McMullen also said the staff is caring. He said they talk to him every time he comes about the need to quit smoking.
“They treat you with respect and dignity," he said. “They’re all good people in there.”
“I enjoy doing it, and it’s very rewarding,” Jones said. “And when we can get somebody’s blood pressure under control, or their blood sugar, then you feel so good that you’ve accomplished something.”
Jones came out of retirement 15 years ago to run the clinic, and as she approaches her 80th birthday, she doesn't show any sign of slowing down. As long as she has her team of volunteers around her, they will continue to provide care for whoever walks through their door.
“I don’t know how to say special in a different way, but they are special, because they could be somewhere getting paid, and they are here donating their time,” Jones of the staff.
“I think they enjoy it and see that they’re getting somewhere and that it’s a good thing. And that plays on their heartstrings too.”
Nurse Bombard agreed. “People are just happy to be here and grateful that we can do something to give to someone else who doesn’t have quite so much.”
The free walk-in clinic is open to patients 18 and older who are uninsured or underinsured. In addition to providing specialty care with community providers, the clinic also provides medicines and prescriptions as needed.
The nonprofit clinic runs on grants and donations and always welcomes medical professionals willing to donate their time to help their patients. They also need volunteers to help with other things around the clinic, like cleaning and office work.