Free care amid COVID-19
In Texas, a Christian medical clinic serves hundreds of low-income patients living in a coronavirus hot spot
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On an August afternoon in Harlingen, Dr. Stephen Robinson had sweated through the armpits of his blue scrubs by the time he said goodbye to his last patient of the day.
Robinson, with dark-rimmed glasses perched on his nose and a stethoscope draped around his neck, volunteers about 16 hours a week at Culture of Life Ministries. The 8-year-old pro-life medical clinic offers free care for low-income patients, but amid the coronavirus pandemic, it has had to adjust how it sees patients.
Today’s last patient, getting help for chronic pain, also wondered how to get insulin for her husband, who she said had recently spent weeks in the hospital for COVID-19. After Robinson answered her questions, he ushered her back through a small lobby with four plastic chairs spread apart for social distancing. He locked up behind her—the clinic has had to reduce its hours this year due to staffing shortfalls, although if any walk-in patients drop by, they can ring the white doorbell taped to the door.
Robinson began donating his time, starting with a half day each week, in 2012. Others joined him, and last year, the clinic’s volunteer staff of doctors, medical students, retired nurses, and others cared for about 400 patients a month. The clinic runs on grants and donations, which Robinson says have increased during the pandemic. Although care is free, patients sometimes slip money into the wooden donation box by the door. Pre-pandemic, up to 50 patients at a time packed the waiting room while pastors offered to pray with them in the chapel. These days, many patients wait outside in their cars, and about three-quarters of the clinic’s regular volunteers are staying home or working remotely. Yet between calls and in-person visits, the clinic now treats about 600 patients a month.
Culture of Life sits between a Methodist church and a Baptist church in the center of Harlingen, a town surrounded by fields and wind turbines a 30-minute drive from the Mexican border. In 2017, almost 30 percent of Harlingen’s 65,000 residents lived below the poverty line. Some have to borrow a phone just to call the doctor. In this region, the Rio Grande Valley, COVID-19 has hit hard: Harlingen’s county has confirmed over 20,000 cases.
Margaret Cervantes, a retired medical assistant, has been mostly staying home to avoid catching the virus but is still volunteering at Culture of Life. She uses a cell phone from home to answer calls to the clinic, scheduling appointments in an online Google Doc that other employees can access. Robinson also has more help than usual from medical students as other residency opportunities had shut down during the pandemic: During my visit, one student spoke to a patient over the phone in Spanish.
Open about 20 hours a week during the COVID-19 pandemic, Culture of Life provides diabetic wound care, ultrasounds, endoscopies, stress tests, and blood work. The clinic has 16 exam and procedure rooms and runs out of a former law office donated in 2018. Half its budget helps patients pay for care the clinic can’t offer, such as dental work. The clinic website also specifies what it chooses not to offer—abortions, sterilizations, assisted suicide. Robinson said that’s part of his intentional effort to respect God’s authority to give and take life.
Esmeralda Rivera, a nurse practitioner and the clinic’s medical director, is also volunteering from home but sees patients by phone and video call. She treated a family of eight for COVID-19, and they referred others—about 40 so far. Rivera said many patients, especially the homeless or illiterate, didn’t know to take COVID-19 precautions such as mask-wearing and distancing. Others in multigenerational homes, common in the Rio Grande Valley, couldn’t avoid catching it from relatives. Rivera helps them find nearby pharmacies that accept vouchers from the clinic and tries to teach COVID-19 safety when she can.
Robinson has cared for about a dozen patients with COVID-19. Since the pandemic hit, he’s also treated more stress-related ailments than usual—chest pain, stomach problems, high blood pressure.
Robinson said his patients come looking for comfort and hope, not just symptom relief. Clinic volunteers try to offer that hope through prayer over the phone and in the exam room. Volunteers gather to read Scripture before the clinic opens each day, and Robinson reminds them and himself to look for Jesus in patients.
“Is it going to be someone who’s going to curse me out today or smell bad? Can I see Jesus in that person?” he said. “Show them that they’re royalty—that’s what we’re striving to do.”
—Esther Eaton is a WORLD Journalism Institute graduate and a WORLD intern
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