MODESTO -- National leaders at the NAACP sent a note out to their chapters last year, advising them that health was the biggest issue they should be addressing.
Frank Johnson, then the new president of the Modesto chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, took on the challenge.
"I got to thinking, 'Let's take it to the next level,' " Johnson said.
He spoke with Ceres Police Chief Art DeWerk. "I said, 'A clinic would be nice.' I was thinking on a very small scale. The snowflake turned into a snowball and the snowball's now an avalanche."
About a year ago, the local NAACP opened a downtown clinic, staffed Thursday afternoons by volunteers, that sees patients who have little if any recourse for health care.
Many of those who come in are recently unemployed, or they work hourly jobs with no benefits.
"They're receiving unemployment, but they don't make enough to make the doctor visit," Johnson said. "(If they go to see a doctor), something's not going to get paid. They're going to lose their car. Those are the ones they're looking for."
Volunteer nurses, emergency medical technicians and phlebotomists who staff the clinic find these folks in a wide variety of places.
Last week, a 34-year-old shoe salesman got to talking with a customer who turned out to be volunteer nurse practitioner Daniel Lucky.
"I've been having hearing issues and it's not getting any better," said David Burtch of Modesto. He said he hasn't seen a doctor in about 15 years, and he doesn't have insurance.
But it wasn't just the free treatment that appealed to Burtch.
"The way Dr. Lucky explained it to me it's more holistic, less focused on 'curing,' but causing patients to be the optimal version of themselves," he said. "That kind of spoke to me because aside from a couple of bad habits, I'm a pretty healthy dude. I like taking care of myself."
Volunteers are motivated
Lead medical assistant and medical office manager Lori Francis has been volunteering since January and oversees about a half-dozen former Abrams College students on Thursday afternoons; they also help at other times. One current student also volunteers, which fills a college requirement. But all the students stayed on after graduating.
One Abrams graduate, Baljinder Pabla, said, "I volunteer here because about half the patients are Sikhs, who speak the Punjabi language, and I speak that." Also, he said, volunteering is a good opportunity to stay active in medical work while he's trying to start a career.
Inderdeep Singh, 24, of Turlock said that in addition to improving his technical skills, he picks up valuable instruction on bedside manner: "If you're trying to get into the medical profession, it's good to see how the doctors talk with their patients."
Also among the volunteers is Baldev Bajwa, who retired after a 41-year career as a registered nurse, including 21 years at Doctors Medical Center. Why does she work at the clinic? "Number one, I'm helping my community. Number two, I'm a member of NAACP, and a board member, and we have to help people. And I like to help the Sikh community anyway, because it's my religion."
She paused, smiling, and bowed her head to share a confidence. "And another thing I get bored sometimes at home, and I come here four or five hours. I like doing my profession since I was 18 and I was a nurse."
Focus on education, prevention
Lucky stressed that the clinic treats patients in the context of their cultural background. "For example, asthma in African-Americans is experienced differently. They don't cough as much, but there's an intonation in the voice. We ask if they've experienced any change like that. We've had so many patients here we've identified as having asthma, particularly in the African-American community, who didn't know they had it."
The clinic does not offer emergency medical treatment or any kind of narcotics or pain medications. It does, however, make available blood screening, EKGs and urinalysis, with a heavy focus on education and prevention.
Lucky emphasized that in a pep talk to assistants Thursday afternoon, encouraging volunteers to talk about body mass index, a tricky but important conversation when obesity is such a big problem, often leading to serious medical conditions.
"If the BMI is high, we've got to start really counting: exercise four times a week, 'What are you eating?' " said Lucky, a doctor of nursing practice, who works in Ceres Police Department's police nurse program. "The idea here is that in another couple of months, we're going to be hitting flu season, and it always hits the people without insurance the worst."
Expansion being eyed
Johnson hopes to expand the clinic soon.
"We're looking at an additional building," he said. With operating hours only three days a week, sometimes the clinic is so overloaded with patients that volunteers are there until 7 or 8 p.m., Johnson said. "We're the biggest little clinic in Modesto."
Patient Mary Ann Barton, 58, of Los Banos will attest to that. She met Lucky when he spoke to a phlebotomy class she took at Abrams College. She doesn't have insurance, so it sounded like a good option.
"I hardly ever went to the doctor, so I wasn't taking care of my blood sugar properly, and so by coming here, you could say they pretty much saved my life," she said. "They keep in contact with me, checking on me, making sure I come in to get checked."
Indeed, as she spoke to a visitor, Lucky walked by, greeted her and asked how she and her husband, also a patient are doing.
"When I missed a week, they called to see if I was OK," Barton said. "I'm very grateful to them all."
For more information on the clinic, or to make an appointment, call the NAACP office at (209) 544-2810.
Bee Local News Editor Deke Farrow can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (209) 578-2327. Bee staff writer Patty Guerra can be reached at email@example.com or (209) 578-2343.