February 16, 2013

Free clinic looks to expand

Charles Oliver

— The doors to the DEO Clinic don’t officially open until 5 p.m., but at 4:45 patients already fill the small waiting room.

“I am very sick today, and I don’t have insurance. Up until 2006, I had insurance, and I was working two jobs,” said Dalton resident Pamela Parker. “But the jobs aren’t out there, especially if you are my age (53). Dalton has been hit hard, and there are a lot of people in the same place I am. I am so glad this place is here. I’ve been here a few times, and the people who work here are so great.”

The clinic sees patients two nights a week, Monday and Thursday. All the staff, including doctors and nurses, volunteer their time and effort. The clinic offers all its services at no charge.

Currently located at 411 Central Ave. in Dalton, the clinic started seven years ago in donated space at the Upper Room Mission as a medical outreach effort of St. Mark’s Episcopal Church.

“Henry Harrison, who was the assistant to the rector, and I hatched the idea,” said Dr. Rodovaldo “Rod” Rodriguez, a Dalton surgeon. “I’ve always had a passion for serving those who are underserved, and I’d wanted to create a free clinic.”

Rodriguez said the clinic was initially aimed at Dalton’s homeless.

“When we started, we were managing acute illnesses. Respiratory infections, foot problems. And we were doing a lot of social work, helping people find food and housing,” Rodriguez said.

But over time the clinic’s focus shifted as the number of Dalton residents without health insurance grew.

“We are seeing mostly new people who have lost their jobs and don’t have insurance or are working at jobs that don’t provide insurance, and so we are finding ourselves helping them manage chronic illnesses such as diabetes and high blood pressure and heart disease,” Rodriguez said. “Many of these people are struggling to keep food on the table and pay rent. They let their health go until something really bad happens. They end up in the emergency room, and they get treatment and get better for a time, then it starts all over. We are trying to help them break that cycle. That improves their health, and it also keeps them out of the emergency room.”

When the clinic started Rodriguez was its only physician, but now it has several, so they take turns working each week.

As the clinic grew, it moved several times seeking more space. It has been in its current location about a month. It has also filed for 501(c) status and is looking to expand its board to increase its ability to raise funds and expand services.

Anne Blaylock, one of the clinic’s managers, says expanding services is important.

“Right now, we have to limit ourselves to about 10 to 12 patients each night. Sometimes we have a doctor and a nurse assistant or a doctor and a physician assistant and we see more people,” she said. “We’d like to expand the days we are open, and open during the daytime  one day a week because we know some people can’t get here at night.”

In addition to providing medical care, the clinic is sometimes able to help patients obtain medications.

“We have a social worker who is usually here and can help people find out if they are eligible for different programs,” Rodriguez said.