From afar, this medical office building on East LaSalle Street in central Colorado Springs looks like any other brown, square and functional. Before entering, you can almost smell the linoleum and Lysol.
But something is abuzz at this nondescript edifice on a rainy Thursday evening. Cars line the street and fill the parking lot long after normal business hours. Inside, a brightly painted waiting room hums with the sounds of patients completing forms. Beyond the waiting room wall, the maze of hallways bustles with a battalion of volunteer nurses, physicians, physician assistants, a pharmacist and pharmacy assistants.
Mission Medical Clinic is in session.
The brainchild of a group of local Christians who met several years ago, Mission Medical Clinic has handled more than 2,000 patient visits and dispensed nearly $2 million worth of free pharmaceuticals since it first opened in January 2004. It provides top-notch medical care to those who live far below federal poverty standards and get along with no medical insurance of any kind, including Medicaid or Social Security.
They are the most needy health care consumers in the community, among an estimated 75,000 uninsured in El Paso County.
Clinic director Marcella Ruch, rosy-cheeked and dressed in a flowing silk blouse, says God is in all the details of Mission Medical Clinic.
"Jesus told us to heal the sick," she says matter-of-factly.
Tonight, Dr. Frank Barry will see new and returning patients, as will orthopedic surgeon Dr. Thomas Eskestrand and psychiatrist Dr. Roger Pumphrey. All doctors donate their services to the clinic, as do all support staff members. Tonight, 35 volunteers work in the clinic; others bring those volunteers dinner, as they do every Thursday. Still others will clean the building after the clinic is closed.
The LaSalle Street location is Mission Medical Clinic's third in as many years. Memorial Hospital has donated this space to Mission Medical, but recently put it on the auction block. Ruch and her board members hope to purchase the building to secure a permanent location for their clinic, where they would like to expand services by the end of this year. The price tag is high $1 million but Ruch is confident that God will provide.
Catching the Catch-22
Behind a second waiting room wall, volunteer pharmacist Randy McFee and a cadre of assistants fill prescriptions from a bank of generic and name-brand pharmaceuticals donated by local physicians and drug company representatives. McFee purchases $2,000 worth of generics per month and dispenses everything from blood pressure medications to antibiotics, with the exception of narcotic painkillers and controlled substances.
Supplies for diabetics, including blood test kits, insulin and syringes, are among the most widely distributed items, as are expensive antidepressant medications.
The free drug programs that most pharmaceutical companies offer are restricted to patients who have regular doctors a Catch-22 that automatically eliminates most of the uninsured, who normally get their care from whoever might be on staff in emergency rooms and acute care clinics on a given day.
Mission Medical helps these people in two ways: by providing them with a regular physician and by having volunteers help them wade through the intricate paperwork involved in the programs' application processes.
In a room behind the pharmacy, two volunteers, Sandy Pham and Susan Logie, negotiate the application forms. Logie says they deal with as many as 36 different pharmaceutical companies, all with different forms and requirements. The requests sometimes take three to four weeks to process, sometimes longer.
"One man in our clinic had a rare condition and needed a testosterone cream for treatment," says Logie. "The company that makes that particular medicine has a committee that meets four times a year to determine who will receive the drug for free. On our end, it required staying on top of the request until it was fulfilled."
The paperwork to apply for these programs is complicated and extensive, and most private clinics don't have such support staff available to help. Those at Mission Medical consider this to be one of their most important services, and at least one interested outside observer agrees.
"If Mission Medical wasn't available, most of those patients wouldn't be taking their required prescription medication, and that would have less than happy effects on the patient," says Gary Flansburg, Memorial Health System's chief financial officer. "If they get in a critical situation, they probably wind up in [Memorial Hospital's] ER or Penrose's ER, in serious condition."
And, as Flansburg adds, "That's probably an inappropriate place for them to come an expensive place."
A 'pretend Christian community'
Marcella Ruch enters a quiet, dimly lit room outfitted with soft chairs and a loveseat, and explains that here, the prayer mission of Mission Medical Clinic is carried out.
A volunteer dressed in dark slacks and a tie is settling down with a regular patient, Bob, who has chronic heart problems and frequently drops in for a prayer. When their session has ended, he will be given a tape recording of the prayer to take with him.
"The prayer ministry is offered to all patients, but never forced," explains Ruch. Prayer rooms are operated by trained volunteers who must undergo 12 hours of training before they are able to spend time with patients.
The training encourages volunteers to be tolerant, to withhold judgment of people, to drop all denominational language, to be loving and accepting, to dress appropriately and to respect the various religious experiences of clients who ask for prayer.
A former school principal with a doctorate in education administration, Ruch began this type of work through what she calls "healing prayer."
"When I retired, I started doing mission work," she says. "I went to Russia with a Methodist minister, and one day, I was praying for a kid with leukemia. I couldn't understand the language, but I could feel the spirit of healing through my hands, a great heat. From that moment on, the holy spirit has never left my hands."
Ruch returned to Colorado Springs, where she formed a prayer group and visited churches, giving healing prayer trainings.
A turning point occurred when she attended a conference and heard Ed Mathison of Frazer Memorial Methodist Church in Montgomery, Ala., speak about the free medical clinic for the poor run by his church.
"Here I was in Colorado Springs," says Ruch, "a city of churches that bragged about being evangelical headquarters. But I saw it as a pretend Christian community, because there was no active mission to heal the sick in the name of Jesus."
Ruch went to her group, now a 501(c)3 called Christian Healing Network, and prayed about her mission, then announced a meeting to organize a free clinic locally. Mennonites, Catholics, Protestants, evangelicals and local activists came. Churches made pledges of financial help.
"We had everything we needed, except a doctor," she says. "Then Dr. Gary Bloom offered himself to be our medical director. Our first volunteer doctor from the community, Frank Barry, here tonight, is now heading our electronic medical records committee and serves as assistant medical director."
As word about Mission Medical spread, Ruch helped mobilize the community on behalf of its most vulnerable people. She says they helped the S.E.T. ("Service, Empowerment, Transformation") Clinic at Marian House Soup Kitchen secure free labs and X-rays for its patients, and provided a model for those who created the new Open Bible Medical Clinic on South Union Boulevard.
Again and again, Ruch expresses her assurance that God provides what is needed to keep Mission Medical Clinic alive and thriving. Her faith is as unencumbered as her middle name: Rejoice.
"My given name was Marcella Joyce, a name I only heard come out of my mother's mouth when I was in trouble," she laughs. "You know: Marcella Joyce! Spoken in anger. I never used it. Then one day, I was in a meeting in a very holy place, and I received a new name for my new work in God: Marcella Re-Joyce. Marcella Rejoice."
Ruch glides through the building, unlocking doors to darkened corridors where an eye clinic, operated cooperatively with local nonprofit Renewed Vision, offers eye exams and eyeglasses for free.
A dental clinic is in the works, with examining rooms already set up, all equipment donated. The carpet will have to be removed to meet the heath code requirement of washable floors, and volunteers will take care of that. The clinic already has a full-time volunteer coordinator, Sara Pucci, and a technician, Mark Hood, who will make free false teeth for clients.
Additional plans for expansion include four physical therapy rooms, tentatively scheduled to open in September.
Upstairs, the evening's clinic activity has reached a fever pitch.
"It's a zoo in here tonight," says a nurse, juggling a tall pile of file folders. "Are there any open slots?"
A woman stands at the check-in desk, bent over in obvious pain. Accompanied by a social worker who needs to leave soon, she has been told that she can't be seen because her lab work has not been received. The clinic must rely on patients to follow through with lab work, most of it donated by Memorial and Penrose hospitals, in order to be seen by a physician on clinic night.
Ruch quietly intercedes with a few questions. She determines that the patient's labs have indeed been done, and that the results should be available through the clinic's computer connection with Memorial. The woman in pain will be seen.
Another patient, here to have her asthma and arthritis medications refilled, offers the woman a ride home, then settles in for the wait. Her medications three for asthma, two for allergies are packaged in bright pink Mary Kay cosmetics bags. She lost her job last year due to a back injury, drew workers' compensation for a while, and discovered the clinic when she lost her health insurance.
"Sometimes the wait is a little long," she says, "but the doctors here have explained more to me about my asthma and arthritis than any doctors I've seen before. I couldn't get along without this place."
'Not gonna quit'
Ruch greets Joe Givan, a local chiropractor, who has shown up with his portable massage chair to offer neck, back, hand and arm rubs to tired volunteers. In the small kitchen, plates of salad, cold cuts and banana pudding are passed among volunteers who share stories about their families, their jobs and their lives outside the clinic, then quickly get back to work.
From a side office, executive director Nanci Cole hands out copies of a new line item budget to area coordinators. Like many here tonight, Cole says she hooked up with the clinic "accidentally."
A former executive vice president of Sprint and executive of General Dynamics, Cole helped organize one of Ruch's early healing prayer conferences. When the decision was made to move ahead with a free medical clinic, she agreed to oversee the legal, financial and management oversight aspects for a year. Three years later, she's still here.
"I scheduled patients for a while. I've written grants. In general, everyone here has done a little of everything," says Cole. "My objective is to create a place where Christians can act out their faith."
For Cole, that entails sitting on boards of local community health organizations, coordinating efforts with Memorial and Penrose hospitals, and defining the policies and organization structure of Mission Medical. In her many donated hours of labor, Cole, like many others here, says her faith is repaid.
"We truly believe that we see miracles here," she says. When the board sent her to look at the current LaSalle Street facility, she observed that there were only five chairs in the entire building. "Within 30 days, we had 87 chairs, all donated. Every stitch of furniture and equipment in this place is donated." She sweeps her hand around a small room outfitted with a large desk, several chairs, shelves, office equipment and a computer. "When you put that context around running a place like this, it's pretty miraculous."
Sometimes, says Cole, the miracle comes completely unexpectedly. She relates a tale about pharmacist McFee receiving a donation of medicines for an extremely rare medical condition one week. "The next week, a patient showed up in clinic who needed it."
Cole, who volunteers an average 15 hours per week here and works full-time elsewhere, says the fact that Mission Medical Clinic has moved three times should only reinforce to the community that it is here to stay.
"We're not gonna quit," she says. "We're going to keep expecting the opportunity to serve."
Budgeting for a new management model that will include paying for the building will be a big change, she says, but one the clinic can handle. While the current shoestring budget only demands dollars for pharmaceutical purchases, liability insurance and incidental office supplies, a mortgage and upkeep on the building will change the model significantly.
Still, she says, if it's meant to be, God will provide direction and guidance to take the next step.
Like a prayer chain
It's 9 p.m., and the clinic's doors have closed. Nurses cluster near the front door, waiting for the rain to settle from frightening deluge to steady downpour.
Marcella Ruch rustles through a mountain of papers on her desk and pulls out her proposal for a $1 million capital campaign to purchase the building. Area churches will continue to provide a chunk of the clinic's operating expenses, as will small foundation grants. A large matching grant is pending a vote from the El Pomar Foundation, based on the clinic's ability to raise $200,000. The City Council of Colorado Springs has offered a $340,000 public service contribution as soon as Mission Medical Clinic can assure its ability to raise a half-million toward the purchase. As in a prayer chain, each step of the process relies on the step preceding it.
"Good night" echoes from the hallway. A small woman in scrubs, P.K. Petitmermet, is one of the last to leave. She is the clinic's full-time volunteer referral coordinator, meaning that she recruits medical specialists around the city to see Mission Medical patients for free. She has presented her case to cardiologists, gynecologists and neurologists around the city with great results.
"I had no desire to come here," she laughs, explaining that when she retired from family practice nursing, she found doors for volunteer opportunities closed to her at every turn. Then Mission Medical came into view and she, too, was hooked.
Petitmermet sends charts ahead of patients to volunteer specialists so that they can evaluate the patients' needs in a timely fashion. She also assures that patients show up for their appointments and refers patients to local hospitals and clinics for lab work.
"It was God's will, but it's a great place to work," she says. "It's a real faith booster."
Statements like Petitmermet's have punctuated the evening. "It's a God thing," says one volunteer, explaining the unique satisfaction he derives working here.
Outside, the lightning subsides and the rain settles down. Lights are dimmed and shades are drawn at 2125 E. LaSalle.
The last patient shuffles down the hallway toward the door, still bent with pain but clutching a grocery bag of medicines. Marcella Ruch calls out prayers for safe returns home to the woman and the last straggling volunteers, as Mission Medical Clinic closes its doors on another night of healing the sick in the name of Jesus.
If you want to give, Mission Medical Clinic needs:
Cash donations for its capital fundraising campaign. Contact clinic manager/development officer Marcella Rejoice Ruch, 227-0434.
Volunteers to provide data input and computer support for the Pharmacy Assistance Program; to provide dinners; to clean; and to help with clerical aspects of the program, including fundraising. Call volunteer coordinator Mary Jane Ray, 599-7976.
Registered pharmacists who can work on Saturday or help twice a month. Call pharmacist Randy McFee, 219-3402.
Donations of ophthalmoscopes for examining rooms, an EKG machine, portable defibrillators, office supplies and medical equipment and a treadmill for physical therapy clinic. Call Ruch, 227-0434.
Donations of medical samples. Call McFee, 219-3402
Church congregations and community groups to pledge ongoing financial support. Call Ruch, 227-0434.
Mission Medical Clinic
2125 E. LaSalle St.
Open second and fourth Tuesdays of each month, 9:30 a.m. to noon; Thursdays, 5:30-8:30 p.m.; first, third and fifth Saturdays, 9:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. Diabetes clinic open Thursday evenings; Renewed Vision Eye Clinic open Thursdays and Saturdays. Appointments required.
Call 219-3402 or visit missionmedicalclinic.org. All patients must be screened for eligibility before using clinic services.
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