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Free medical clinic at Bartle Hall helps hundreds in the journey toward better health

Dianna Brown of Kansas City checked the blood pressure of Kira Roby of Kearney during Saturday’s free medical clinic at Bartle Hall.
Dianna Brown of Kansas City checked the blood pressure of Kira Roby of Kearney during Saturday’s free medical clinic at Bartle Hall. The Kansas City Star

Kira Roby went to the one-day free medical clinic Saturday at Bartle Hall with a couple of health concerns on her mind, one of which was that she might have diabetes.

The disease runs in her family. But the 26-year-old from Kearney, who works at a convenience store, has no health insurance and had never been tested before.

Roby didn’t know what the signs of diabetes are, so she was lost when a nurse asked if she’d been feeling symptoms.

Turns out she had, telling the nurse she can sleep more than 12 hours but not feel rested and for the last year or so has been drinking a lot more water than she ever has.

Roby had one of the 1,300 patient appointments for the safety-net clinic, which was organized by the Kansas City CARE Clinic and the National Association of Free and Charitable Clinics.

The process was set up like a visit to a doctor’s office except that everything happened in a giant space more typically used for car shows and conventions. Volunteers ushered each patient through; no one was left to wander on their own.

Privacy was of utmost importance. Each patient was assigned a number at check-in, so no names were ever called out. Patients met with physicians in exam areas shielded by curtains. With media walking around too, patients who did not want to be approached were given color-coded wristbands to wear.

Two ambulances were on hand, just in case. They have been needed in the past.

The volunteer commitment was just as outsized as the location. The 1,400 people who donated their time for the day — including doctors, nurses, dentists and staff — were the most who have ever worked one of these clinics, held nationwide since 2009, organizers said.

And though the last appointments were scheduled for 5 p.m., the team was ready to stay into the night to make sure everyone was seen.

“We’ve become a lot more organized and streamlined, and we can provide higher quality and more efficient care,” said Bobby Kapur, a physician from the Baylor College of Medicine who served as the medical director for the first clinic six years ago.

“We’ve been able to garner more resources and donations from around the country … supplies, medications, equipment, which has been great.”

Unfortunately, Kapur said, patients still walk through the doors with the same medical troubles. The most prevalent diagnoses are diabetes and high blood pressure.

“Most of what we see are … people showing up with chronic diseases, diabetes, high blood pressure, asthma, arthritis,” said Kapur. “They don’t have access to providers, so they are needing prescriptions, prescriptions filled, they’re out of their medications.

“A lot of them are not getting preventive services like mammograms, cancer prevention — not getting checked for colon cancers.”

People of all ages come to the clinics, said Kapur, though the event at Bartle was geared toward adults.

“Most of the patients we’re seeing are employed; they have jobs,” he said. “They’re hardworking people, so it’s not just the unemployed.”

When Vanessa Griffey’s neighbor in Blue Springs told her about the event, Griffey’s reaction was, “Oh my God, I need that. I have no insurance. I have a lot of problems.”

The 58-year-old grandmother has been struggling with varicose vein pain in her legs and heart palpitations. An osteopath has been treating her for anxiety disorder, but she needed blood tests too, which she said would cost $300 that she doesn’t have.

Even after having blood drawn twice, with little pieces of cotton taped to the inside of each arm, Griffey was glad for the care and attention.

“I’m happy to be here,” she said.

Organizers made sure that the journey toward better health for Griffey and the other patients didn’t end at Bartle. The one-day event was not designed as a Band-Aid. Patients were given three-month supplies of free prescription medications and referrals to safety-net clinics and social services available in Kansas City.

“We’re trying to change the whole system,” said Kapur. “There are thousands of free clinics across the country that are providing care every day. What we try to do, we try to do these large-scale events in major metropolitan areas across the country and in one day try to channel patients into the resources that they need.

“What’s important for us as health care providers is to not just provide care for one day … but also make sure they get the care that they need for the rest of the year, the next two years.”

Before patients left the hall, they were given information on local free clinics and other services they might need.

At a mini health fair set up near the exit, Casey Brown, pediatric care coordinator at Health Partnership Clinic in Johnson County, made follow-up plans for some folks, which is why some of them left with appointment cards.

“I feel it’s much more convenient and much more proactive to schedule them here so they already know a day and time and what doctor they’ll be seeing,” said Brown.

Kira Roby visited the health fair on her way out and scooped up handouts and pamphlets with a light heart.

Turns out that she doesn’t have diabetes after all.

“I was very, very relieved,” she said.

To reach Lisa Gutierrez, call 816-234-4987 or send email to lgutierrez@kcstar.com.

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