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More than a clinic

Our South region runner-up provides free medical care to people living in one of America's poorest counties

Photo by Tiffany Owens for WORLD

More than a clinic
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ATHENS, Ga.-Thursday, 5:25 p.m.: Mercy Health Clinic volunteers scurry like theater students before opening night. They rush from room to room carrying manila folders, pinning on nametags, and greeting each other with hugs and smiles. Doctors peek at their appointment lists and make final touches on their notes.

"It's almost time for our huddle," Executive Director Tracy Thompson says. Shortly after 5:30 p.m., she leads the way downstairs where staffers and volunteers have gathered to pray. Ten minutes later, they rush upstairs and begin calling names. It's show time.

Mercy provides free medical care to people living in one of America's poorest counties. Many patients are the working uninsured, meaning they earn too much to receive Medicaid but not enough to buy insurance without falling short elsewhere.

A person must live at or below 150 percent of the federal poverty line, be uninsured, and live in one of six local zip codes in order to be accepted as a patient at Mercy. Demand is high: Mercy only accepts 12 new patients each week. The clinic is trying to hire a full-time practitioner, but until then some people only become patients after waiting for months.

David Pressley, 51, was fortunate. His wait was only two weeks. A technician by trade, he was laid off in 2008 and tried to find work as a truck driver. When the physical exam required for that position revealed diabetes, a nurse recommended him to Mercy where he found treatment. Later, when he discovered a lymphoma on his spine, Mercy arranged his back surgery at no cost to him. Mercy has impressed him: "If I had money, I would pay to come here."

Mercy subsidizes its $514,000 operation through grants, fundraising, and donated services. More than 25 local doctors and specialists donate services, and pharmaceutical companies donate many of the prescriptions issued in Mercy's in-house pharmacy.

Volunteer Dr. Paul Buczynsky says, "Doctors like coming here. They don't have to hassle with insurance companies ... it's pure medicine." Since doctors who volunteer at Mercy don't have to spend hours on paperwork, they spend more time educating patients on preventive measures and how to make healthier choices.

"We're trying to get patients involved in their health," explained Buczynsky. Many patients suffer from chronic diseases like diabetes and congestive heart failure, but also from lack of information. Mercy doctors want patients to take responsibility for their health. For example, if a patient is a diabetic and needs medicine, Mercy will fill the prescription, but will also require the patient to take a six-week course in diabetes education before getting a refill. If patients are overweight, exercise and diet change might be just as much a part of their prescription as medicine.

Becoming healthy is partly up to the patients, and sometimes they don't want to change. But if they do, Mercy volunteers are willing to partner with them, and not just when it comes to choosing carrots over candy. Mercy volunteers also partner with them spiritually and emotionally. "Often, the causes of chronic health problems are relational or social," Buczynsky says: "If we don't deal with the emotional and spiritual part, how much have we really done?"

Prayer and social services have been a part of Mercy's work since it opened in 2001. The clinic at first functioned out of a Presbyterian church, using Sunday school classrooms as exam rooms and an office room as the pharmacy. Nearly 11 years later, the building has changed but the mission remains the same. "Our first goal here is to share Christ's love," executive director Thompson explains. "We use medicine as a vehicle ... [but] if we're not sharing Christ's love, then everything we're doing is like a clanging cymbal."

Money Box

• Mercy Health Clinic had expenses of $373,108 in 2011.

• Contributions in 2011 totaled $478,363.

• Mercy Health Clinic has five full-time and three part-time employees.

• Tracy Thompson's salary is $48,000.

Read profiles of finalists and winners from 2006 through 2012 on WORLD's Hope Award page.

Tiffany Owens Tiffany is a World Journalism Institute graduate and former WORLD reporter.


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