Eureka Springs's Free Clinic Runs on Kindness

What do a bank executive, a retired nurse, a jeweler, a computer specialist, an artist, a teenager and an idealistic family doctor -- all from the tiny town of Eureka Springs, Ark. -- have in common?

They are part of a unique approach to the health care crisis in America: all have volunteered to help their uninsured neighbors receive first-rate health care -- for free. And nearly 200 other local volunteers have joined them.

"I thought it would be more of an effort to get everybody on board," explains Dr. Dan Bell. He's the idealistic family doctor who, with his bright and energetic wife Suzie, envisioned creating a free health care clinic four years ago.

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"I thought we'd be doing something in the back room of our church and seeing a dozen people," Dan said of his early vision.

Instead, the Eureka Christian Health Outreach clinic, known as ECHO, sees hundreds of patients a year. Its entire staff, which now includes doctors, nurses, pharmacists, dentists and a wide range of clerks, assistants, social workers and specialists, are all volunteers. No one receives a penny for their time and, on clinic nights, they can work six hours or more without a break. And that's after most of them have already put in a full day at their regular jobs.

"I guess the surprising thing is I've never had anybody say no, to everything I've asked for," Dan says, his eyes twinkling. He has genuine affection for the friends and colleagues who have lined up to help, and is convinced the clinic's success is due to their sincere compassion for those who can't afford health care and don't qualify for government assistance.

"Around here, 25 percent to 30 percent of the people are not insured, and so they're not getting good health care. And they either let their chronic conditions go -- and don't get taken care of well enough and let themselves get in trouble -- or maybe show up in the emergency room sicker than they should be," Bell says.

Suzie Bell adds that she didn't realize the extent of the problem until she took a good, hard look at it.

"It kind of shocked me, it was kind of a wake-up call, because I live in this guarded world where I've had health care. And to see people go without it, to see diabetics who just don't get treated because they can't afford it, that was just unfathomable to me. And it surprised me that there were so many."

She is a big part of the driving force behind the ECHO clinic, and has enlisted the area's churches to help keep the wheels moving -- everything from donating supplies, to networking with patients, to setting up the clinic on "Clinic Nights."

Volunteers Transform Gym Into Full Clinic

ECHO doesn't have its own building, so a swarm of volunteers descends upon the empty gymnasium of the Faith Christian Family Church and, within a few hours, transforms it into a fully-functional medical clinic. And when the clinic closes for the night, volunteers take it all apart, sterilize everything, and pack it all away until the next clinic. It is exhausting, but the volunteer team takes pride in doing it right.

"This is a community effort. We have people from all walks of life that make this work, and that's why it works," explains Gary Hayhurst, Faith Christian's pastor.

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