As a young girl growing up in Brunswick, Ga., Paige Cummings played nurse on Wednesdays and Saturdays when her father provided the only medical care available to long lines of patients in Macintosh County.
Now, after traveling the world as a Navy officer and Red Cross director, Cummings is once again serving as nurse for long lines of patients who have nowhere else to go for healthcare – the homeless and uninsured patients at the Athens Nurses Clinic (ANC) in Athens, Ga.
On most mornings patients like Lillian Foster, an uninsured ACC resident who almost died when her pneumonia wasn’t looked at seriously by a local hospital, file into the waiting room of the large house-like building situated on a small street in a residential neighborhood of downtown Athens.
During the clinic’s most recent fiscal year, some 1,070 patients – about 21 each week – made more than 3,700 visits to the clinic. That wouldn’t be many for a clinic open 40 hours each week, but ANC is open only half as long.
Not to mention that it has the equivalent of less than five full-time employees.
“The clinic would not run without volunteers,” said Annabella Uhde, Spanish translator and administrative assistant at the clinic.
Three years ago, Uhde was a part-time translator working less than ten hours a week. She worked with Cummings, now executive director at the clinic, and some days they would find themselves running the entire clinic with only one other nurse practitioner. The three would complete patient histories, do blood pressure checks anddraw blood, run lab tests, educate patients, make follow-up calls, fill prescriptions and sweep the floors.
When Cummings was asked to fill the position of executive director in 2010 by the ANC board of directors, the clinic began actively recruiting unpaid help. Today, two or three student volunteers are there on an average day, assisting with routine tasks.
Many of these students grew up in affluent settings before attending the University of Georgia, and for them connecting the dots between poverty and health isn’t easy.
A change in mind set has to occur. Most students start out asking why patients aren’t following orders related to their own care, but gradually they learn to consider what conditions keep patients from following those rules, said Cummings.
“I’ve never worked in an indigent clinic before so this is like an eye-opening experience for me,” said Fred Tian, a 2nd year health policy management student from UGA who is working as a full-time intern at ANC.
Tian has been working at the clinic since August, and he and another student spend nearly every day teaching people with hypertension or diabetes to manage their own disorders.
Studies show that hypertension and diabetes are more prevalent in indigent populations. More than one in three patients at the clinic have hypertension, one in ten is diabetic, and almost one in five patients has both conditions.
When volunteers hear these stories for the first time, it’s hard not to want to stick around and help people help themselves.
“You have such a good feeling when you have helped somebody,” said Cummings, “here you are, one-on-one, making a change in somebody’s health care status.”
“I came in here not knowing what to expect,” said Boris Kovalenka, a first-year medical student who is working with ANC through his Essentials of Clinical Medicine course at the Georgia Health Sciences University/UGA Medical Partnership campus located in Athens.
Kovalenka is originally from Atlanta, Ga. and had no idea that Athens-Clarke County was one of the most impoverished counties in the nation. After his first patient intake interview, he used the same word to describe his experience as Tian: “eye-opening.”
Now, Kovalenka will spend the rest of his semester working with classmates to identify and try to solve a health problem that is affecting ANC patients.
For Cummings and the rest of the ANC staff, volunteer opportunities at the clinic are about more than opening student eyes; it’s about helping the clinic impact lives. For many of the patients, the clinic provides the only available long-term medical care for those who are chronically ill and would otherwise be seen only in emergency rooms.
With the help of student volunteers from the Medical Partnership, the College of Public Health, the nursing program and other programs at UGA, Cummings has been able to devote more of her time to fundraising.
As a result, the clinic has medical supplies, computers that just arrived in May, and will be relocating to a new 10,000 square foot facility within the next two years.
The new Athens Resource Center for the Homeless will be located on North Avenue, making a triangle between the Department of Labor, Department of Family and Children Services, and Advantage Behavioral Health. It will house the ANC, Aids Athens, Athens Homeless Service Day Center, Job Trek and the indigent component of Advantage Behavioral, said Cummings.