Today through Sunday, hundreds of East Tennesseans and others will wait their turn for hours, hoping to receive the most basics of health care.
It’s a reality Remote Area Medical and its team of volunteers sees played out time after time across this country. The nonprofit started by Stan Brock in 1985 initially provided health care to those in Third World countries until the health care crisis here in this country revealed people also weren’t able to afford to see a doctor, get emergency dental procedures or even pay for eyeglasses.
Brock died in 2018, but his mission of providing free health care to all who need it, remains intact. RAM hosts more than 60 free clinics each year in places like Jellico, Knoxville and large and small towns across the country. No ID is required, no proof of citizenship, no address — nothing is asked of those who show up. First-come, first-treated has been the model of care from the beginning.
This weekend, volunteer doctors and dentists from faraway, along with RAM staff and a host of community volunteers, will operate the first RAM clinic of the year, at Chilhowee Park in Knoxville. The gates opened to parking at 10 p.m. Thursday for the first round of care and will do the same on Friday and again Saturday. The clinic opens at 6 a.m. each day.
Jeff Eastman serves as RAM’s first CEO and was appointed by Brock. Eastman started volunteering with the nonprofit back in 2008 and landed on its staff in 2014. He, like others leading an organization, has had to remake what RAM looks like in 2021 after most of its 2020 clinics were canceled due to COVID-19.
The team, Eastman said, got together to figure out a way to design new safety and disinfecting procedures so the clinics could resume.
That plan has included temperature checks of everyone entering the clinics, including medical personnel. All are asked about possible COVID-19 exposure and possible symptoms. Every person on the premises must wear a mask.
Anyone who’s been to a RAM clinic has seen the long lines of people stretched outside and inside the building. Not anymore. Eastman said each person who shows up will be asked to sit in their cars until being called in for services. The 200-plus chairs normally in a waiting area are gone, too.
Instead, there will be fewer chairs, each set at least 6 feet apart.
Air scrubbers to make it safe
But the most noticeable change will be once a person arrives at the health stations. Eastman said dental patients will be placed inside individual 10-foot-by-10-foot tents. “The tents will have negative air pressure with airflow going through an air scrubber,” he said. “We will be meeting surgical requirements even though we will be doing dental procedures.”
And after each procedure, antibacterial agents will be used to sterilize the areas. Dental services may include cleanings, fillings, extractions and X-rays.
RAM also provides health care to include eye exams, glaucoma testing, eyeglass prescriptions, flu shots, general medical exams and women’s health exams, mental health counseling, prescription consultations, foot care, skin lesion evaluations, wound care and treatment of hand and joint cancers. All who come in contact with the patients will be wearing masks, sneeze guards and eye protection, Eastman said. Sanitization will be done after each patient.
It takes 400 to 500 volunteers to host a clinic, Eastman said. That includes professional and general-population individuals. Set-up and take-down time is six hours for each. It takes longer than before because of the precautions that have been put into place, he explained.
“There are a lot of moving parts,” Eastman said. “The more people we have, the quicker it goes.”
Always looking to serve
While RAM was instigating new safety protocol for its clinics, staff and volunteers looked at additional ways they could serve during the pandemic. Once again, Eastman said his team stepped up and delivered.
“The team and my volunteers helped staff 27 drive-thru COVID-19 testing sites in 13 states,” the CEO said. “They were all across the country. Those great volunteers helped administer over 63,000 COVID tests.”
Once the new protocol was set into motion, RAM did host some pop-up clinics in states like Idaho and Nevada. It also traveled to Lake Charles, Louisiana, an area devastated by two recent hurricanes. One team traveled recently to South Texas to help administer the COVID-19 vaccine.
Eastman said other nonprofits and RAM had been practicing how to handle a health disaster for years. “Now we have put that to good use,” he said.
In addition, this organization began offering telehealth services, which enables patients to see a doctor while safely at home. They can get prescriptions filled, Eastman said. He added this service is now being provided almost every other weekend.
COVID tests will be available
RAM also will assist with a COVID-19 drive-thru event Saturday and Sunday, from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. in the Jacob Building parking lot. The tests will be free.
RAM’s headquarters was located in an old former school in Knoxville before it relocated to Rockford in Blount County in 2014. Eastman said Brock lived in that school building and slept on a grass mat. He said he and others at RAM are proud to carry on his legacy of helping all who need it.
Since its beginnings, this nonprofit has treated more than 863,000 people, delivering $174 million worth of free health care services. Its overseas operations have been halted for now due to the pandemic.
There likely will be fewer clinics in 2021 than in normal years. Fewer people will be served at each due to social distancing and other time-consuming procedures. Eastman said 2021 is already booked and clinics for 2022 are getting on the schedule.
Eastman knows it won’t just be Knoxvillians who take advantage of this weekend’s clinic; RAM is perfectly OK with that.
“I go out and walk the parking lot and talk to people,” he said. “There will be people who come here from the Tri-Cities and north Georgia because they are desperate. Even if you have insurance you don’t have health care because of high deductibles. Then you have to take time off from work, so that is a double whammy. That favorite waitress at your favorite restaurant and the person at the convenience store you stop at, and it’s that person you stood next to in line at the grocery store.”