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RAM clinics need your help

Judy Garland, Community Voices Columnist • Jul 26, 2018 at 8:30 AM

On Saturday, June 2, around 200 people showed up at 201 N. Sycamore St. in Elizabethton for free dental and vision care. That’s not a clinic or medical facility‘s address. It’s the location of the Elizabethton/Carter County Public Library. I know this only because I happened across a newspaper report on the event, even though this is a very big deal. It’s a paradox though, as a time for praise and a time to feel embarrassment.

First, the library staff deserve a huge shout-out for organizing and hosting the event, so far beyond lending books and promoting literacy. It’s not the first time. This same staff also conducted the local homeless count in March for the national census. I hope it’s not presuming too much, but I’m wondering if the first service inspired the second because of the first-hand involvement with folks in great need. That sure can change perspective and encourage awareness. The library director, Renita Barksdale, and her staff have accomplished two remarkable services, and I understand both were led by staff member Debbie Dugger. We owe admiration and thanks.

Now for the other side. The clinic was just a day-long peek at what is shamefully evident need. The library staff hosted a Rural Area Medical event with RAM’s mobile units and the Tri-Cities-based Appalachian Miles for Smiles mobile dental unit on hand as well. The RAM clinics are staffed by both local and non-local volunteers, including medical professionals, medical students and others who fill essential jobs. Local restaurants (Hardee’s this time) provide meals for volunteers and hotels house out-of-town volunteers. It takes a huge effort to provide dental and vision services to 200 people in one day. It’s not peripheral stuff. Folks get teeth filled and teeth pulled, have eyes checked and get new glasses. When possible, they are hooked up for follow-up care in the local area.

I gathered from the report that the library staff came away from the experience with a new sense of overwhelming need for such services in our area. They had to take down their online posting of the event after only one day because they were swarmed with over 17,000 views. They had to turn people away because they had only so many slots. Ms. Barksdale said it was heartbreaking when people cried because they couldn’t be included. It did my heart good to read these words from Ms. Barksdale: “We’re hoping the city and county leaders see that we need something bigger. Our citizens do need help. It takes a library to raise a community. We see there’s a need and now we all need to work together to see that that need is fulfilled for our community.”

RAM ought to be an organization acronym that’s known to all of us who read the Johnson City Press, as our newspaper provides them good coverage. I’m amazed, though, how few seem to have any idea the scope of their work or even who they are, particularly when they change so many lives and sometimes minds. (A casual decision to check out a RAM event by Wendell Potter, Cigna’s then VP in charge of spin, caused him to give up his high six-figure job and become an insurance-industry whistleblower.) The letters stand for Remote Area Medical, even though their service is no longer so remote. Their next one nearby will be in Gray in November.

Founder Stan Brock has quite a biography aside from RAM. He pledged to find a way to bring medical care closer to people after suffering an injury in a tribal community so remote that medical care was 26 days away. Today RAM, funded with donations and run by volunteers, operates mobile clinics all over the U.S. and abroad, but is headquartered here in East Tennessee. After starting in underdeveloped countries, Brock often refers to his shock and disbelief when he first realized the richest country in the world abides a healthcare system that excludes tens of millions of its citizens. That thousands would travel over long distances, lining up for hours for a chance at the service he had envisioned for third-world situations, waiting their turns or often the next event.

The three-day mobile clinic will set up on Nov. 2-4 at the Gray fairgrounds, where Potter remembers his shock, seeing people receiving healthcare in the animal stalls. Folks arrive hours in advance, sleeping in cars, for getting into the parking lot at 12 a.m. and to be early in line at 3 a.m. when the admission numbers are given out. With over a thousand seeking treatment, the two-day Gray clinic was able to treat 830 individuals with care valued at $487,000. I know how we Democrats feel about such shameful reality, but it does strain my capacity to comprehend why our response should be in any way partisan. Elizabethton’s library staff gets it.

There’s great need for professional, student and general volunteers and the list is being compiled already. (Contact [email protected] or [email protected]) Folks who’ve helped in the past deserve so much credit. It’s no small thing they’re doing. I wish I could call each by name, but they know the value of their gift.

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