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Caregiving

Free clinic for uninsured in Tampa celebrates 40th anniversary

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Published:   |   Updated: March 19, 2013 at 03:25 AM
TAMPA -

No, the Rev. Jim Holmes says, he didn't have a crystal ball four decades ago that foreshadowed a looming health-care crisis.

"I only know that we had people who were falling through the cracks in our system," the retired minister says. "And there's no excuse for that in a country as wealthy as the United States."

So with an impassioned plea to his congregation at St. John's Presbyterian Church, Holmes led the effort to launch the Judeo Christian Health Clinic in a Sunday school classroom at his church. Give 25 cents, he urged. Then he passed a basket.

They responded – as did supporters throughout the community. The clinic started with one volunteer doctor, then two. It was three or four weeks before they got their first patient. As word-of-mouth spread, though, the waiting room filled up.

This year, the clinic is celebrating its 40th anniversary. And the clinic – which depends solely on donations, grants and volunteers, and is based in a building still on the church grounds – has evolved into one of the community's most vital intervention centers. Last year, it recorded more than 35,000 patient visits on a $578,000 budget.

On Thursday, the clinic will sponsor its annual testimonial dinner and silent auction, which raises about 20 percent of its annual operating costs. Tickets are still available for the event.

The clinic's mission is to provide health care for patients who can't afford private health insurance but don't qualify for government assistance because they have an income that is too high for such benefits, either from a job or other supplements, including unemployment.

Edgar Swann, 61, fits that profile. After suffering a few strokes that left him disabled, he could no longer work at his job for a heavy equipment company. With a disability check that's too meager to pay all his bills, he had to eliminate costly health insurance. And he's not old enough yet to qualify for Medicare.

"Without this place, I'd probably be dead," Swann says. "Since coming here, I'm getting the care and medications I need to stay alive. They're real special people."

Tampa surgeon Sylvia Campbell, board president, is among the more than 350 health-care professionals and other supporters who donate their skills and time either at the clinic or at their private practices.

She says it's a "gift" to be part of the organization. Seeing the impact the clinic makes on patients' lives gives meaning to the profession she refers to as a "calling."

"I cannot imagine how difficult it would be to be told that you had cancer, and then be told that there was nothing that could be done because you had no insurance," she says. "Because of this clinic, so many have been helped, healed and given new life.

"That's the most wonderful payment I get, and the reason that defines why I do this work."

According to the Virginia-based National Association of Free and Charitable Clinics, about 50 million people are uninsured in this country. In 2009, about 8 million people were treated at clinics like Judeo-Christian – double the number for the previous year.

Another national survey is under way and will be complete by the fall, says executive director Nicole Lamoureux. She is confident that number will rise again.

"What we know now is that in the last two years, free and charitable clinics are recording a 40 to 50 percent increase in patient visits," she says. "These clinics are performing an incredible service that is urgently needed."

That's why family nurse practitioner Kim Curry, the associate director of the nursing department at University of Tampa, has been donating her services for the last eight years. Like Campbell, she feels strongly that part of being a health-care professional is giving back to the community.

"There is such a community focus here," she says. "It brings you to a place that reminds you why you got into medicine in the first place. I bring my students here so that can be reinforced. Health care has gotten so complicated; here, you have a chance to see an immediate impact on people who need it desperately."

Holmes says he really had no idea back in 1972 that the country's health-care woes would continue to worsen, and that the clinic would become such a significant safety net to so many people.

"It's not a popular thing to do, to take care of sick people who can't afford it," he says. "But this is a gift of grace that we have so many marvelous people who step up and do that, because it's the right and just thing to do."

TBO.com, search keyword: Health Clinic, to see how to qualify for medical and dental care, and to watch a WFLA-TV report on the clinic's operation.

TESTIMONIAL DINNER

When: 6 p.m. Thursday, silent auction and reception; 7 p.m. dinner

Where: Higgins Hall, 5225 N. Himes Ave., Tampa

Honoring: Outback Steakhouse co-founders Bob Basham and Chris Sullivan, for their work in the community

Cost: $95 donation per person; other rates for reserved tables

Information: (813) 870-3231; www.judeochristianhealthclinic.org


mbearden@tampatrib.com (813) 259-7613

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