In a white tent set over the Rockingham County fairgrounds, Harrisonburg residents lined up to be seen by doctors, free of charge.
This is the first Remote Area Medicine Clinic to make its way to the Shenandoah Valley. It was organized and hosted by members of the JMU and Harrisonburg communities to provide on-site medical and dental care to underserved residents in 2019.
This clinic was brought to Harrisonburg by the efforts of Laura Hunt Trull, an assistant professor of social work at JMU. She saw a great need in the Harrisonburg and Rockingham County population for medical care that could be accessed by impoverished residents who are underinsured or without health insurance completely.
“We estimate that there is about 17,000 adults who are uninsured in Harrisonburg,” Trull said.
Trull has continued her involvement with RAM and plans for another free clinic to serve Harrisonburg residents in April 2021. The clinic in March 2019 served 601 residents, supplied 856 individual medical services and gave over $340,000 in free care.
Under the tent’s shade, patients cluster around one table where clinic staff distribute Narcan, an expensive over-the-counter drug that’s used to combat opioid addiction. Patients were taught to self-administer the drug, and they left with a free supply for use during an opioid overdose. This station and others that provide support for issues like nicotine addiction and other lower-level healthcare services aim to address the needs of the underserved and underinsured.
Volunteer Jonnie Lawler, 23, said the most popular service is provided by the dental station, where patients without dental insurance take the opportunity to be seen by dentists and their assistants. The general medical station — the second most popular, Lawler said — offers check-ups to patients that don’t have regular access to general medical care. Every member of the clinic’s staff is either a doctor or medical assistant who volunteers their time or a community member who wishes to give back.
“This event couldn’t happen without the dedication of the community host group volunteers and without the flood of support from community organizations,” Trull said. “Every direction I turned with a need, there was someone saying, ‘Yes, we’ll do that.’”
Trull has followed RAM for around 20 years, and for the past five years, she’s volunteered for the organization herself. Her course requires students to volunteer at a RAM clinic, and after her years working with the program, she wanted to bring RAM to Harrisonburg. RAM travels to locations in the U.S. and other nations to provide medical care to underprivileged populations who generally can’t afford basic healthcare.
In 2017, Trull proposed her idea to invite RAM to the community to the Safety Net Coalition, and it was approved. Trull reached out to the RAM headquarters, based in Nashville, Tennessee, to invite the organization to bring a free clinic to Harrisonburg. And from that point, the community host group was born and began to fundraise, pull together local volunteers and secure the site for the clinic. RAM provided the supplies and recruited the professional volunteers.
Trull made it clear that without community donors and volunteers, the clinic wouldn’t have been possible. She credits the RMH Foundation, the College of Health and Behavioral Studies at JMU, many corporate donors, local churches and other community sponsors.
“I’m very grateful for that, and I think there will be several hundred patients who will be grateful for that, as well,” Trull said.
Lawler and Audrey Villanueva, 23, are VCU pre-med and pre-dental students who drove from Richmond, Virginia, to volunteer at the RAM Clinic. They’re two of an entirely volunteer staff made up of doctors and medical students who left their practices to serve at the two-day clinic.
“I get to volunteer a little bit, I get to see doctors and see real people interact with the community,” Lawler said. “It’s just a good vibe here.”
As he volunteered, Lawler described working with one patient who was at the clinic for a general check-up because he doesn’t have the right services to evaluate his health as a non-English-speaking patient and couldn’t afford healthcare while uninsured.
Many residents are eligible for Medicare, but Medicare doesn’t cover dental or vision procedures, according to the Medicare website. RAM is able to offer full dental exams, X-rays and full vision exams that include the opportunity for patients to leave with the glasses they need.
Community members like Glenn Hodge, an attorney at Wharton Aldhizer & Weaver PLC, aided Trull in planning and organizing. Hodge, as a long-time member of the free clinic board in Harrisonburg, wanted to fill the demand for healthcare he knows Harrisonburg residents have.
“There’s a need,” Hodge said. “When you start looking at the services the RAM clinic provides — the dental and vision — you know this will help the uninsured and underinsured.”
For pre-med and medical students like Lawler and Villanueva, RAM clinics are valuable opportunities to gain experience in the field while also giving back to people in need. Lawler described a conversation he had with a doctor he’s working under while at the clinic, who has volunteered at 12 free clinics.
“I asked him why he does it, and he said, ‘Sure, there’s a bit of altruism,’” Lawler said. “But, he looked at me and said, ‘Well, there’s a need for it. These people need this.’”
Contact Jamie McEachin at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more coverage of JMU and Harrisonburg news, follow the news desk on Twitter @BreezeNewsJMU.