New leader, same burden

Way Free Clinic’s new director settling into community responsibilities


GREEN COVE SPRINGS – No one comes to the Way Free Medical Clinic without a story.

Director Delores Wise was just 19 when her story began with the loss of her mother to breast cancer. It was an experience that was to set her on a collision path with nonprofits that would inevitably lead her to Clay County’s only pro-bono medical clinic.

Previously, Wise directed the Northeast Florida affiliate of the Susan G. Komen Foundation, which raises money for breast cancer research, as well as provides free mammograms – a move no doubt inspired by her mother’s death.

Catharsis from pain comes from healing others.

“I came here because this is so tangible, you know?” Wise said with tears in her eyes. “You can hold the patients, you can see them. There, it was gray, I was raising money for breast cancer but I couldn’t ever know the patient’s stories.”

Every story is different. The lobby is a mismatch of every race, ethnicity and age. But similarities exist. Each patient lives in Clay County, lives under the federal poverty level and needs medical care they can’t afford anywhere else.

Taxpayers somewhere along the line pay for the brunt of this care. The clinic’s $400,000 a year budget is padded with state grants, public donations and private, in-kind donations from other hospitals, sometimes financial, sometimes equipment.

“If we were to boil it down, every day at the Way one plus one equals seven,” Wise said. “We raise about $400,000 each year and we turn that into $2.8 million worth of healthcare. That’s why we’re needed, because if we weren’t here, someone would have to be coming up with $2.8 million worth of health care.”

The work performed at the clinic keeps uninsured residents out of the emergency room, where time is limited and prices inflated.

The physicians and specialists that donate their time – among them nurses, medical students, doctors, chiropractors, mental health counselors and the like – donate their time to help fill the dip of services caused from infinitely ballooning medical costs.

“This place is fantastic for helping people in need, and anyone who can volunteer or donate, I encourage it.” said Juanita Johnson, a former teacher and patient at the Way Free Clinic.

Johnson came to the clinic after hearing about it from word of mouth. Her son’s epilepsy medication and Johnson’s diabetes medication cost $1,100 a month combined.

“That was what originally brought us here, and then I got the help I needed with my diabetes. As soon as I’m able to I’d like to volunteer,” Johnson said.

The Way Free Clinic does not dispense pain medications of any kind, “we don’t go there,” Wise said. The clinic’s case managers do recommend locations that can dispense medications at the cheapest rate, however.

This means that Johnson, who lives on a tight budget, can get the medications she and her son need as well as keep a roof over her head and food in their stomachs.

For procedures the clinic cannot perform in-house, doctors refer to outside specialists. These procedures are covered under the clinic’s no-pay system.

However, the clinic does host a cadre of specialist doctor’s and services. The clinic has the services to deliver and check up on the health of babies using an ultrasound system. The clinic also has a mental health counselor volunteer and a chiropractor.

“My job is to care for the uninsured,” in any way she can, Wise said. And sometimes that means stretching a dollar to the other side of the room.

“In the nonprofit world, [free clinics] are experts at making things out of duct tape and bubblegum, but really, it’s amazing what they can do with very little,” Wise said. “They can produce amazing things, and it’s the heart of the people that are here that gets things done.”

The Way Free Clinic celebrates its eleventh year in operation this month. Wise joined the clinic in November, so she’s still settling in. So far, though, she said she loves the new role.

“What we provide for them, it really is lifesaving,” she said.


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