Free clinics ‘treat you like a person’

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LAWRENCE INGVALSON waits patiently to see a doctor at Shepherd’s Hand Clinic in Whitefish. Ingvalson said he was probably sick with the flu. The free clinic has served the North Valley for 11 years. Garrett Cheen/Daily Inter Lake

It was "more bad days than good days" that brought Bill Aubert to the Shepherd's Hand Clinic on a drizzly October evening.

A Louisiana native whose conversation is politely peppered with "Yes, ma'am, no ma'am," Aubert suffers from major depression. When his condition worsened a few months ago, he was unable to keep his job as a grocery-store shelf stocker.

No work meant no money for the pills he needs to treat his depression. Aubert, of Hungry Horse, has been off his medication for three months. His wife, Wendy, struggles to pay for food and housing with her paycheck.

"I'm thankful they have this," he said about the free clinic.

Sitting in the clinic's spacious waiting room at the new Christ Lutheran Church campus in Whitefish, there was a moment of optimism.

"Once I get balanced, I'll get a job again," he vowed.

SHEPHERD'S Hand Clinic has operated as an outreach ministry of Christ Lutheran since October 1995. It started with more faith than money. Organizers got the clinic going with just $1,200 and today continue to serve patients weekly.

"We've stayed pretty consistent over the last 11 years," Shepherd's Hand Clinic Director Meg Erickson said. "Partly it's how we're structured and partly it's finite resources."

On any given Monday evening, about half the patient load is people with chronic conditions; the other half need acute care. In 2006, 43 percent of the patients were first-time users; the rest were established patients. They turn no one away.

The clinic is sustained by donations and by discounts from area pharmacies - and a vast network of volunteers.

Erickson and her husband, Jay, were the lightning rods who got the clinic going. He's one of several doctors who provide their expertise on a rotating schedule.

WHITEFISH resident Sheila Tymchyna is one of the regulars who relies on the clinic to keep her heart disease and diabetes in check.

"This place is absolutely wonderful," she said. "They treat you like a person, like an equal. We don't feel like low-lifes because we're here."

Tymchyna has been using the clinic about a year and is working to get disability assistance. She has no health insurance and can't afford the medication she needs.

The staff's kindness also is noteworthy, she said. "They're really good. They don't shove you in and out."

Stacie Stoddard, a Columbia Falls single mother of two, said without Shepherd's Hand, she would let her asthma flare-ups get bad enough to go to the emergency room.

"Most doctors won't take payments, but hospitals will," Stoddard said. "I'd keep racking up hospital bills if I didn't have this place."

Like other patients quietly settled in the waiting room until their turn, she doesn't mind the wait.

"You may wait two hours, but it's worth over $100," she said.

Jackie Hooper of Whitefish gets thyroid checkups at the clinic.

"I like the way they treat you with dignity and respect," she said. "It's a blessing to have it."

Monday's crowd was unusually large because the clinic had been closed for six weeks while the Christ Lutheran congregation moved into its new facility off Montana 40 in the Riverside development. Extra volunteers made the transition go smoothly.

Whitefish teachers Benilda Delgado and Kathy Wram teamed up to handle the overflow on that first evening in the new space.

"It went really smooth," Delgado said.

An ample list of helpers volunteer about once every six weeks.

"It's a nice way to give back to the community," Delgado said.

TOUCH OF Grace, a Kalispell free clinic based at the Salvation Army community center, sees 24 patients every other Tuesday evening.

On any given clinic night, two doctors from a list of 25 volunteer physicians see patients. Three nurses volunteer, but getting nurses is more difficult, given the current shortage of nurses in the Flathead, program director Laura Wycoff said.

In operation since 1998, Touch of Grace relies on community donations and gets a portion of its operating money from Salvation Army Thrift Store revenue. The clinic has a staffer who handles the paperwork to get free medication from pharmaceutical companies.

"If we can't get it free and it's not on our shelf, we see if Wal-Mart has it on their $4 list," Wycoff said.

The clinic doesn't turn away patients and tries to schedule a dozen chronic patients and a dozen new patients for each clinic session.

Features editor Lynnette Hintze may be reached at 758-4421 or by e-mail at lhintze@dailyinterlake.com

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