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.
"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."
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.
Hayhurst didn't blink when the Bells asked him, three years ago, to make his gymnasium available for clinic nights, which are now scheduled twice a month. "They'd like to have their own place, and that will come," he says. "But right now we're just excited to be a part of it, and we just thank God for the opportunity."
In getting the ECHO clinic up and running, they were able to draw from the lessons learned by other charitable clinics around the nation, including the nearby "Little Portion Hermitage" in Berryville, Ark. There, a group of Catholic Brothers and Sisters of Charity has operated a charitable clinic for 15 years. Smaller than the ECHO clinic, "Little Portion" nonetheless serves hundreds of patients each year -- everything from simple blood pressure monitoring to physician's exams. They have found the need for their services increasing every year, especially among the growing Hispanic population.
"They are a welcome community, but growing in numbers by leaps and bounds," said John Michael Talbot, general minister for Little Portion. "And a lot of them are Catholic, and looked to us to reach out and help them."
The services provided are limited to basic medical care. "We're able to do basic visits for colds and the flu and so on," he explains. "We aren't able to do MRIs or surgeries or anything like that, but we are able to get the initial visits taken care of, and to refer them to good people who can follow up with them."
Little Portion, like ECHO, stays busy from the moment it opens its doors on a until it closes, and Talbot doesn't expect demand to slow at all. "There are far more people in need than we are able to reach," he notes.
There are, in fact, hundreds of "free" or "charitable" clinics in the U.S. Some are very small and operate infrequently; others have spacious buildings and an ambitious schedule. All, however, depend heavily upon the generosity of volunteers -- and donors. The National Association of Free Clinics, which helps guide communities to develop and operate charitable clinics, estimates that over $300 million per year is raised in private funds for those clinics nationwide. That helps to provide care for approximately 3.5 million uninsured and underinsured patients.
"We are seeing the need growing. In fact, in the last six months, we've seen the lines at some clinics increasing 25 percent to 30 percent, given this economy," said Nicole Lamoureux, executive director of the NAFC. "The people who volunteer at free clinics see a need, and instead of waiting for a solution, we're working on the problem right now."
The NAFC calculates that their work adds up to about $3 billion in free health care services.
And that isn't counting all of the free labor provided by tens of thousands of volunteers in communities nationwide.
Often, that volunteer labor force is provided by local church communities. Suzie, a Methodist, says ECHO has been blessed by the willingness of dozens of different church leaders to ask their congregations to put their faith into action at ECHO. "That's what we're called to do, really, as Christians," she says, emphatically, "We're supposed to help each other, and love each other."
A guiding philosophy for ECHO is an abiding respect for those who come for help. Volunteers are reminded before each clinic begins to be compassionate. Suzie has enlisted a small corps of volunteers called "shepherds" to help patients through each step of the process: registration, triage, doctor's office, pharmacy. Since the waits can be long -- the most recent clinic treated 57 patients in one evening -- patients are seated with their Shepherds at large dining tables, and dinner is served -- to everyone.
"We're very blessed here," notes Grace Gladden, who oversees "Hospitality" for the ECHO clinic. She says local churches have a friendly competition going to see who can provide the best homemade dishes -- including an impressive array of pies and cakes -- on clinic nights. "I think we have a lot of people here that want to help each other."
Jim Swolley is convinced of that. A retired tool-and-dye machinist, Swolley believes he owes his life to the ECHO clinic. When he was initially afflicted with bipolar disease several years ago, he had good health insurance and, with treatment, recovered. But when the disease struck him hard again two years ago, he and his wife, Oleta, were living on Social Security income and they had no insurance. Oleta convinced Jim to see Dan, at the ECHO clinic and that, she says, has made all the difference.
"As soon as you come in and you sign a list, you're assigned a Shepherd," says Oleta. "What a wonderful name – a Shepherd – to guide you through the whole process with such love. You never feel lost," she explains, reaching for Jim's hand.
"This was as big a difference as day and night," Jim adds. "To know there was something out there, that you could reach out and they stopped and listened."
Dan and the ECHO team were able to arrange for him to get free medication, as well, donated by a pharmaceutical company.
What impresses Jim Swolley the most, however, is the way in which the entire ECHO team treats him during his visits. "It's the most heartwarming feeling to feel the love when you walk in the door. It's just that nice."
Oleta agrees. "I don't know that I have ever seen a place where you find a unity of spirit like they have here."
Bell believes many more communities could do what ECHO is doing, if they put their heart and soul into it.
"I think there's a whole untapped resource that we all have," he says, growing philosophical. He has been delighted by the willingness, even enthusiasm, of very busy people to carve out time to serve at ECHO, for no compensation other than a thank-you.
"You know, that's not what our western civilization thinks our lives are about," Dan says with a wry smile. "Our Western civilization thinks it's about us, being first, making money, being successful. But we forget, that's not what Jesus came to show us."
Dan and Suzie are devout Christians who say their faith was the force that spurred them to start ECHO, and believe it offers a lesson: that giving really can bring joy, that sacrificing time and talent to help neighbors in need can weave communities together in an extraordinary way.
Still, they don't talk about faith much on nights when there is a clinics; there's no time and the patients are an eclectic mix, representing many different faiths, many of no particular faith, and more than a few who don't want to discuss faith that night -- just their health.
And that is fine with the Bells. They -- and the dozens of volunteers who show up every Clinic Night -- are there to serve, to catch those who've fallen through the cracks in the health care system and to do everything possible to help them. And when they see that help take hold -- restore a patient to health, comfort a person in pain -- that, they say, is all the reward they need.
You can contact the ECHO Clinic by phone at (479) 253-5547, or by mail: ECHO Clinic, c/o 195 Huntsville Road, Eureka Springs, Arkansas 72632.