Hamilton Herald Masthead


Front Page - Friday, September 3, 2021

Offering hope for those who can’t pay

VIM’s volunteers work to fill gaping health care gap

“I was sick and you cared for me.” (Matthew 25:36; New Living Translation)

Somewhere between the gainfully employed and the indigent lies the working poor, a class of people who live above the federal poverty line but are barely subsisting on retail or restaurant work. To these multitudes – for whom a single missed paycheck would constitute a debilitating financial blow – health care is a luxury they often pass by in favor of placing food on the table.

These people are among those Jesus mentions in the 25th chapter of Matthew when he says, “When you … [cared for] one of the least of these, my brothers and sisters, you were doing it to me,” suggests Joel Henderson, executive director of Volunteers in Medicine Chattanooga.

They are also the people Henderson and the staff at VIM, a nonprofit medical clinic, labor to serve.

“We help working people,” Henderson says. “We might be someone’s medical home because they’re a server in a family owned restaurant and they can’t afford health insurance.”

Housed in a 5,000-square-foot space in an East Brainerd office park, VIM covers untold acres of medical ground. From diagnosing and tending to patients with diabetes to treating urgent wounds to identifying life-threatening diseases such as cancer, the clinic has tackled a panorama of human ailments.

And, like any primary care facility, it must be ready to at least detect many more.

“Many of the folks who find us are already sick,” Henderson says, compassion filling his voice. “We’ve cared for people who hadn’t seen a physician in over 10 years when they walked in, they felt like they were dying.”

VIM relies on a staff of 80-plus doctors, nurses and medical students who volunteer their time and apply their expertise to caring for these patients. Henderson calls them “true champions of health care.”

“Our model involves attracting retired and semi-retired medical practitioners to work for us,” Henderson explains. “We have volunteers in their eighties.”

As well as one who just celebrated his 90th birthday – Dr. Bob Bowers.

“You’d never know it,” Henderson laughs. “He has more energy than me, and he’s here every Monday like clockwork.”

Many of these doctors bring a wealth of knowledge and experience in medical specialties to VIM. Among these is the clinic’s medical director, Dr. Mitchell Mutter, 74, a cardiologist.

Mutter spends up to three days a week at the clinic overseeing the care it’s providing and treating patients with high blood pressure, heart failure and end stage heart disease.

“I see people who left a hospital with a handful of prescriptions but no way to pay for them,” he says. “We offer them hope.”

Dr. Holly Gadd, a nurse practitioner, is another one of Henderson’s champions. At 63, she’s far from retired, but rather carries a full load as the dean of nursing at Southern Adventist University and an emergency room NP.

“As long as I’m teaching, I’m going to be working in the field,” she says. “I like sharing my real-world experiences with my students.”

Gadd volunteers at VIM several hours a week as well, regardless of the other demands on her time.

“I worked 13 hours in the ER at Tennova in Cleveland yesterday,” she says. “But I’m here today because I love our patients. They have a lot of critical needs, and it’s rewarding to be a part of something that takes care of them. This work is joy.”

It’s also costly. In a country with skyrocketing medical costs, providing quality health care for free is no small task. But Henderson says VIM’s funding partners in the Chattanooga community and beyond make it possible.

These include local churches that donate money to VIM, foundations and other charity organizations that provide grants, and philanthropic individuals.

VIM also receives funds from the state of Tennessee to assist with providing primary care appointments for patients.

These and other funding pieces snap together to enable VIM to provide not only primary care but also lab services, X-rays, eye care and a dispensary that distributes insulin for diabetes patients, blood pressure medicine for people with high blood pressure and other vital prescriptions. (The dispensary does not have or distribute narcotics.)

“Just because it’s free care doesn’t mean it’s less care,” Mutter says.

When VIM and its volunteers have done all they can for a patient, they turn to their other collaborations throughout the city. One of these is Project Access, which serves as a referral point for VIM patients who need specialty care.

“They’re a wonderful partner,” Henderson says.

The financial gifts of local congregations and businesses made it possible for VIM to launch its services in 2004.

Since then, the clinic has logged over 75,000 patient visits valued at $25 million, according to its electronic medial records. In 2020 alone, VIM delivered medical care to 436 patients during 2,586 patient visits.

To receive care, a patient cannot be earning more than 200% of the federal poverty guideline for themselves or their family.

Despite the restriction, VIM’s doors are open to a great number of people in Chattanooga, Mutter says.

Fortunately, he adds, the clinic is concerned with providing compassionate care, not with meeting productivity quotas, so no matter how many patients are seeking VIM’s services, they can each receive the attention and care that makes them feel like anything but “the least of these.”

“I had several patients the other day,” Mutter notes. “And I was able to take my time with each one and talk with them about everything they needed to hear.”

“One of the critical needs here is education,” Gadd adds. “So we talk with our patients about their health and give them information that will allow them to take care of themselves. I’m an educator, so I love having the time to do that.”