Free Clinics Aren't Free by Ken Burger

  • Thursday, August 8, 2013

Ken Burger

Behind the lush vegetation and moss-draped trees of our barrier islands lives the uninsured population of the Lowcountry. Whether they are migrant workers who pick vegetables or locals who have fallen through the cracks of our affluent society, these are people who need basic medical help the most and often have the hardest time getting it.
That's why the Barrier Islands Free Medical Clinic on Johns Island opened its doors in 2008, and has been serving patients in a steady flow for five years. To date, the clinic on Maybank Highway, staffed by volunteer doctors and nurses, has served more than 3,200 patients who otherwise would have gone to area emergency rooms for very expensive care.
But just seeing a doctor is only half the battle. In order to treat these patients properly, there must be lab work, scans and X-rays to determine the right course of action. That's where Roper St. Francis comes in.


Since the beginning, Roper St. Francis has been providing the patients of the free clinic with these necessary tests at no cost. “This is an unbelievable service to our patients,” said Brenda Falls, operations manager of the free clinic. “We try to be good stewards of this service and they have never once turned us away.”
That means these patients, who fall below the federal poverty line, who often don't speak English, and don't understand our medical system, are able to receive quality healthcare at no cost to them and a much-less expensive cost to the rest of us. “Roper St. Francis doesn't get enough credit for what they do for us,” Falls said. “This office I'm sitting in was a construction trailer that they donated to us to use. They also provide our computer network that allows us to build and track our patient data base.”


While James, Johns and Wadmalaw Islands appear tranquil on the surface, more than 17 percent of their 17,000 inhabitants live below the federal poverty level. Founded by retired doctors Arthur Booth and Charlie Davis, the free clinic is run by Dr. Jim Hayes who keeps the daily wheels turning at the tiny facility that is always jammed with patients.
And the patients are not all stereotypical. Sixty-year old Michelle Fitzpatrick, a former medical sales representative from James Island, was without health insurance when her job was downsized out of existence. “It's been a struggle,” she said. It's not the American way to admit you can't keep up with the Joneses, but I swallowed my pride and went to the clinic and
I've been treated with dignity, respect and compassion.”
That's just one story among thousands who come through the doors every day at the free clinic. But it couldn't survive without the help of Roper St. Francis. “Roper's got our back,” Falls said of the life-saving partnership. “We couldn't do this without them.”
Reach Ken Burger at ken.burger@rsfh.com.

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