Dr. Tom Hubbard says he’s surprised by how the group of Hanover Interfaith Free Clinics has grown. The day after he and others started the first free clinic at St. James the Less Episcopal Church, a dentist he’d never met called and offered some free equipment. “I’m not so sure that was a coincidence,” Hubbard says. “I think that was the hand of God.” Photo by Ash Daniel
Donna Regensburg hadn't been to see a doctor in 13 years, despite nagging headaches and frequent stomach pains.
"I wasn't feeling good, but I didn't have any insurance," the 51-year-old Montpelier resident says. "It's awful, because you know there's something wrong, but there's nothing you can do about it," she adds. "You've just got to keep going."
While shopping at a Dollar General store in Ashland one afternoon in 2006, Regensburg noticed a sign on the storefront, advertising a free clinic for uninsured Hanover County residents at a nearby church. She decided to go for a checkup.
A few months later, Regensburg lay on an operating-room table at Henrico Doctors' Hospital as surgeons removed an almost 9-inch tumor from her ovary.
"I probably wouldn't be here if it wasn't for [the free clinic]," says the mother of four boys. She still goes to the clinic regularly for medicine to treat diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol and arthritis.
Of the nearly 100,000 people living in Hanover County, almost 7,500 do not have health insurance, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. In 2006, members of St. James the Less Episcopal Church in Ashland set out to meet the health-care needs of the county's poor and uninsured residents. A ‘Really' Free Clinic
Ten years ago, Ashland Medical Center physician and dentist Tom Hubbard had an idea.
"Most free clinics have paid and volunteer staffs, and most free clinics charge a co-pay," says Hubbard, who had been volunteering one morning per week at the CrossOver Ministry free clinic in South Richmond. "I just thought it'd be nice to have a clinic where nobody got paid, and we didn't charge anybody anything." (According to the Virginia Association of Free Clinics, some clinics request a co-pay of $10 to $15.)
In April of 2006, the vestry of St. James the Less Episcopal Church started planning a small free clinic that would be housed in the church basement. Congregants wrote grant proposals and spread the word that they were opening the clinic to the local community. Soon, a steady stream of donations started coming in from businesses, community organizations and individuals. By October 2006, they'd raised enough money to open the doors of the St. James the Less Free Clinic.
"It almost immediately was clear that the need was far greater than what we could meet here," says Susan Chambers, a church member who is one of the clinic's founders.
In late 2007, an eye-care clinic opened down the road at the predominantly black Shiloh Baptist Church. As word of the success of the existing free clinics spread, more churches signed on. In 2009, a medical clinic opened in the Shady Grove United Methodist Church in Mechanicsville. A second dental clinic opened at the Mechanicsville Christian Center and a podiatric-care clinic opened at Ashland Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in 2010.
Together, the five churches make up the Hanover Interfaith Free Clinics, a faith-based ministry that provides free medical and dental care to qualifying Hanover residents.
"I thought it was just going to be the two of us and a couple of volunteers," Tom Hubbard says, gesturing toward his wife, Susan Hubbard, who serves as the executive director of the clinic. "I had no idea it would get this big."
The St. James the Less Free Clinic now has about 250 registered volunteers. For three hours every Wednesday night, 35 patients are seen by doctors in the Sunday-school rooms of the brick church in a quiet Ashland neighborhood.
During the first four years, the clinics offered free health and dental care to more than 2,000 low-income uninsured Hanover County residents, but the need still greatly exceeds what the clinics can provide. At St. James the Less, the waiting list for dental care is nine months long, and patients usually have to wait two to three weeks to see a doctor.
The effects of the Affordable Care Act on Virginia free clinics will not be known until 2014, but Tom Hubbard says the clinics will adapt their services to meet the needs of their patients at that point.
"We recognize our limitations, and we try to announce them loud and clear," Susan Hubbard says. "But we also say we do the best we can do, and that's really what feels good."
Neighbors Helping Neighbors
On a Wednesday evening in May, a modest blue sandwich-board sign with the word "clinic" printed in white sits outside the basement of St. James the Less. Inside, bright yellow and orange plastic chairs make up the improvised waiting area in the hallway. Oldies music plays softly from a boom box propped on a water fountain, and doctors navigate through papier-mâché masks and Bible-study materials. The men's room at the end of the hall serves as a lab where nurses sterilize equipment and mold dentures.
Susan Hubbard pulls back a bed-sheet-turned-curtain that keeps the section of the hallway where patients have blood drawn separate from the rest of the corridor.
"Nothing fancy around here," she says. "All the money goes to the patients."
One of the patients on this evening is Robin Smith, who started coming to the clinic three years ago when she lost her job after an extended medical leave of absence.
"I found out only 25 percent of my heart was pumping," she says.
Smith, 53, found herself uninsured and diagnosed with cardiomyopathy, a degenerative condition that is marked by the deterioration of the heart muscle.
"I was getting to the point where I just couldn't move," Smith says. "I was profoundly lifeless."
The doctors at St. James the Less Free Clinic connected her with cardiologists through Access Now, a specialty-care nonprofit run by the Richmond Academy of Medicine. After a series of attempts to combat the condition with medication (aimed at increasing the percentage of blood leaving her heart each time it contracted), doctors told Smith there was only one more option: If she didn't have defibrillator-implant surgery soon, she might not live to see her 58th birthday.
Smith's surgery was set for June 22 at VCU Medical Center. Tonight, she's at the clinic for a checkup while her husband has dental work done.
"If I ever get back to working and get any money, I'm going to make a large donation to them," Smith says of the clinic.
Because the Hanover Interfaith Free Clinics are housed for free in churches and don't pay any salaries, the money they receive from grants and donations goes toward buying medication and medical supplies and paying lab fees.
To qualify for treatment, patients must meet the federal government's poverty guidelines, have no health insurance, be between the ages of 19 and 64, and live in Hanover County. The clinics don't see patients who receive Medicaid, but they do offer dental care for patients who are 65 and older, because Medicare does not cover dental treatment.
Many of the patients seeking dental care at St. James the Less have never been to a dentist.
"It's an eye-opener for a lot of [volunteers] because these are our neighbors," Tom Hubbard says. "These are neighbors helping neighbors."
Bill Johnston, 51, started volunteering at the clinic when he joined St. James in 2007. The Randolph-Macon College mathematics professor, who lives in the Kings Charter neighborhood of Mechanicsville, says the clinic has served as an opportunity for him to meet members of his community with whom he would not have crossed paths otherwise.
"The whole church is real proud of this clinic because we know we're doing a good thing for people," Johnston says.
He enjoys working as a dental assistant because it gives him an opportunity to work one-on-one with the dentist and the patient. "You are with these people," he says. "I mean, you're taking towels and wiping blood off their faces."
After a series of dental visits for fillings, extractions and denture fittings, Susan Hubbard usually takes a photograph of each patient with the dentist to show off their new teeth.
"These aren't posed," Johnston says. "There is a humanity to the pictures. There's a visual display of the thanks on their face as they're standing next to somebody who's helped them."
At the end of a winding, tree-lined road in Ashland, a white rancher with black shutters sits before a sprawling front yard. A Rottweiler mix and a black chow play under a honeysuckle tree as early evening mosquitoes descend. Inside, three generations of the Hubbard family are sitting around the dining-room table together, heads bowed and hands clasped. Joining Tom and Susan are two of their four sons — Marshall, a minor-league baseball player, along with his wife, Jen, and 1-year-old son, Luke, and Richard, a VCU medical student who has founded a program to help impoverished people in Bangladesh.
Together, they pray: "God is great, God is good, let us thank him for our food. By his hands we all are fed, give us, Lord, our daily bread. Amen."
Tom Hubbard says the clinic is his way of living his faith.
"Our faith is the central theme of our lives," he says. "We're not preachers. We just try to live our faith as best we can in a quiet way."
Susan Hubbard spends about 25 to 35 hours per week managing the clinic, and Tom is there until 9 p.m. every Wednesday after a 10-hour work day, but they both say they receive more from the clinic than they give.
"I became a doctor because I like to help people," Tom Hubbard says. "But to do something to help somebody without a financial reward, it just feels good. I feel more exhilarated coming home at 10 o'clock at night on Wednesday than I do coming home at 6 on other nights. "
On the Wednesday night in May, as the last patients leave the clinic and the plastic chairs are stacked, Susan Hubbard is still smiling and joking around with the remaining patients and volunteers.
"A lot of gratitude floats around that space, I can tell you that," she says. "A lot of good energy."