Amy wasn't feeling well. She'd been sick off and on for weeks, the glands on one side of her neck were swollen, and she had almost daily severe headaches, not to mention that her inhaler (for asthma) was empty and she couldn't afford the appointment to see the doctor for a new prescription, let alone buy the inhaler afterwards.
Amy is our "almost daughter." Warren and I took her in for ten days three years ago when she fled her dad's house during an altercation, and then I tutored her several times a week for the remainder of the year - her senior year - to help her graduate on time (yes, she did). Amy, who will be 21 this spring, has been a part of our lives ever since and she will call me when life gets too overwhelming. So when she called me Monday night, half crying and worrying aloud about her medical problems, I told her she needed to get to Grace Medical Clinic at Andrews House on Wednesday evening.
A long silence ensued. "Are you going to be there?" Amy knows I work at the Andrews House Legal Clinic, so hoped I worked the medical clinic as well. When I told her no, she hemmed and hawed long enough that I said, gently, "come pick me up and I will go with you."
Grace Medical Clinic, which is held weekly, is in its third year of existence. It is entirely volunteer-driven and free to all. I have known about it since its inception, I have heard glowing descriptions of the work the volunteers do, but accompanying Amy was my first opportunity to see it in action.
What a gift.
Despite arriving some 20 minutes before the official check-in time, Amy and I walked into an already full waiting room. She was #13 on the sign-in list. The woman who held the number one slot had been waiting since 2:00.
Ages ranged from toddlers to seniors. Some were Latino; many were white. There was a family in chairs against one wall: father, mother, and three children, the oldest of whom might have been five. At another chair, a toddler played happily on the floor at his mother's feet, trying to stack nesting cups and making the bright loud sounds of a contented baby.
One patient, an older man, was explaining to another client that he was diabetic and experiencing neuropathy in his feet. "When it gets so far up the leg, they'll take my leg off," he added in a matter of fact tone. There was a couple, perhaps in their sixties, cuddled up on the couch. He had a heavily wrapped arm; she held her stomach.
The set-up crew arrived shortly after Amy and I found seats, and I watched the proceedings with fascination. It was what I always imagined watching a MASH unit set up would be. Within 20 minutes, the dining room was divided into a series of curtained examining rooms. Across the hall, others set up prayer rooms. (Grace Medical Clinic is sponsored by an area church, so offers prayer and counseling to any patients who may want it.) Although I could not see it, further down the hall, yet another team was creating an on-site pharmacy.
Amy was nervous. Amy was tense. Amy was anxious about how long it would take. Amy kept thanking me for being there with her. Amy kept talking.
The evening slowed down. Some volunteers brought in food for the patients, knowing that many of them came straight from work, or otherwise had not eaten. Apples, sloppy Joes, pretzels, bottled water - enough to take the edge off of someone's hunger. There was an announcement that the clinic was short one doctor and one nurse tonight, so they could would not see more than 15 patients that night. Little children - and there were lots of them - grew tired and cranky, then grew contented again. People talked in quiet voices. Children flowed from the waiting room to the makeshift play area (also staffed by volunteers) and then back again to their parents.
Amy got called for a weigh-in and triage. She came back with an indecipherable look on her face. When I asked about it, she replied, slowly, "She was really nice. I didn't know girls my age could treat another girl that nicely."
We waited longer. Patients were called into the examining rooms. Amy ate an apple; I ate some pretzels. We both giggled at the little girl who took a sloppy Joe, then returned it a few minutes later, all the edges nibbled off, and carefully placed it back on top of the pile of sandwiches.
Amy was finally called into the examining room. With the seat beside me empty, Peggy, one of the volunteers, sat down and we started chatting. Peggy has worked with the clinic since its inception. She lived in Columbus, and said she never thought of Delaware as needing a clinic, since the county appears to be so affluent, but how she had quickly changed her perception.
I nodded. "We hide our poverty well," I said, explaining about my involvement with our legal clinic. "And if you're from Columbus, the first thing you see coming this direction is south county, which is where most of the money and big houses are."
We compared notes on clinic operations. I admired the hot food and told Peggy how we did baked goods at our legal clinic. She said this was the first night they had hot sandwiches. Peggy talked about the setup and teardown crews and how they rotate volunteers. I talked about our bank of attorney volunteers.
The evening wore on and more patients left. Members of the teardown crew started trickling in; many of the setup and prayer volunteers, including Peggy and her husband, started leaving.
Close to 9:00, Amy finally appeared. She sat down and said, shyly, that she was going to the prayer counseling area and asked me to go with her. Once there, Amy started crying as she talked about the stress in her life, including the loss of her beloved dog. The prayers were Amy-specific: for strength as her father faces foreclosure and the roof over her head becomes uncertain, for guidance as she looks for work, for direction, for healing her grief. Amy continued to wipe away tears.
Our last stop was at the pharmacy, where she was handed a new inhaler, medication for her infection, and replacement prescriptions. Amy just glowed.
"Thank you," she said. "Thank you."
Four hours after we walked in the door, we walked out. On the way to her car, Amy reflected on what she had experienced that night. "I thought they would be rude or make me feel bad for being poor. But they were all so wonderful and caring."
She was quiet for a moment. "I cried in the examining room too," she said. "I never cry. But the nurse who saw me first was so nice and saw me as a person."
For many, a trip to Grace Medical Clinic is a life saving experience. For Amy, it might be a life changing experience. When you grow up in what can at best be called "hard circumstances," and where you are now living life at an even lower level because of the Great Recession, you learn early and quickly that life is hard and people often look right through you because of your poverty. Amy is losing the roof over her head. Her future is so uncertain right now. So she came to Grace Medical Clinic with all her defenses and walls in place, expecting to be treated poorly at worst and brusquely at best. Amy walked out saying "they were so nice, they really cared." She was stunned that the Grace Clinic volunteers treated someone "like her" - someone in need of a helping hand - with dignity and kindness.
The Grace Medical Clinic is a gift in the midst of our community. The volunteers, medical and lay people alike, are passionate about this mission. Their faith shines through in their actions, their smiles, and their gentleness. They are the embodiment of Kahlil Gibran's saying that "work is love made visible."
Our communities are full of patients, clients, customers, and others who gather the courage to step through a door and ask for help. They are the Amys of the world, not sure what reception they will receive when they ask. I am always in awe of the volunteers who open those doors and serve - those who dispense prayers or medications, those who give legal advice, those who cook and serve meals, those who put their beliefs into action - and count myself blessed beyond words to have the chance to work alongside them. They are ordinary people who have stepped forward in extraordinary ways. They are ordinary people who have looked around, said "this (lack of medical care, lack of legal help, hunger, homelessness) is wrong," and then taken action.
Wednesday night I got to witness a miracle firsthand. I saw Grace in motion.
*Photo courtesy of Andrews House, Delaware, Ohio.