It’s just a small, non-descript entrance in a strip mall in St. Charles.
At first glance, it may not seem like the kind of place where illnesses are being treated and cured, diseases are being managed, and in some cases, lives are being saved.
But there, behind those glass doors stenciled with the words Volunteers in Medicine, that is exactly what happens every week.
Volunteers in Medicine St. Charles, a 2017 Spirit of St. Louis Women’s Fund grantee, serves the health care needs of St. Charles and Lincoln County adult residents who are not covered by Medicare, Medicaid or private health insurance and, whose household income meets Federal Poverty Guidelines.
“Patients tend to fall into the gap between making too much for Medicaid and not enough for the Affordable Care Act,” said Anita Hockett, a retired registered nurse and clinical director of Volunteers in Medicine St. Charles.
The nonprofit also provides patients with medication to treat and manage their illnesses and diseases completely free of charge.
“The medicine comes from samples, from pharmaceutical companies’ drug assistance programs, and then the nonprofit pays for the rest,” Hockett said. “We’ve spent almost $51,000 in the first nine months of this year, just for medicine.”
Volunteers in Medicine is staffed entirely by volunteers, and currently has roughly 65 retired registered nurses, physicians, specialists and staff who take turns at the office. They even have an acupuncturist who donates hours at the clinic.
“Some work once a month; some like myself, work twice a week,” Hockett said.
All the medical records at the clinic are kept in paper files – not digital, Hockett said. This is partly due to cost and partly because the providers prefer paper records, she said.
Founded in 1996, the clinic has some patients who have been coming to the clinic since it began.
Since they are considered a primary medical “home,” patients see them for a variety of reasons, including physicals, medication refills and illnesses.
“It’s just like a primary medical physician office,” Hockett said. “We do have some specialists here – we have an orthopedist and we have one doctor who has a specialty in endocrinology and diabetes so our diabetics get really good care.”
The waiting room, intake cubicles and six exam rooms may not be fancy, but for those who have made Volunteers in Medicine their primary medical home, it is the healthcare lifeline they have been waiting for.
“We had one man who had Grave’s disease – an autoimmune disease of the thyroid,” Hockett said. “He had lost weight and had no energy. With our blood tests and our physician talking to him, and we got him the right treatment, and he was able to get a job.”
The Volunteers in Medicine clinic partners with about 40 off-site physicians, specialists and therapy groups who have agreed to see their patients pro bono, Hockett said. They also have optometrists they work with to help patients get free glasses.
When their patients need diagnostics, testing or surgeries, the clinic typically refers them to Barnes St. Peters or SSM St. Joseph hospitals.
In 2016 alone, the Volunteers in Medicine St. Charles clinic treated 609 individual patients.
Many of the patients they see have been down on their luck, whether that means offenders who have recently been released from prison and need medical attention, or low-income workers who don’t yet qualify for Medicare.
“We’ve had a lot of people who have had some orthopedic problem who can’t work,” Hockett said. “We get them in, and we get them into a surgeon and they get a treatment so they can work.”
Some former patients have been so grateful, they’ve returned to the clinic with donations, she said.
Patients start to think of the volunteer nurses and doctors at the clinic as family, so much so that when one of the nurses died suddenly, the waiting room was full of patients weeping over the loss, Hockett said.
“When they do the admission interview, patients spill their hearts out to the nurses, sometimes that’s even more important than what happens in the exam room,” Hockett said.
The care the patients receive at the clinic is high quality, Hockett said, because the doctors and nurses come from careers at St. Louis University and Washington University medical schools, Mercy and other well-established hospitals and urgent care centers.
“In some instances it’s life-saving,” Hockett said. “And sometimes it’s a quality of life issue. A lot of our patients have so many other stressors besides their health, because they’re low-income, they don’t have the resources. Wellness is more than just physical wellness.”
The grant funding from SOS will be put toward medications, as roughly 80 percent of the nonprofit’s funding goes toward purchasing medicine for patients, Hockett said.
“It wouldn’t do us much good to say you have high blood pressure or diabetes and not be able to provide the insulin or medication,” Hockett said. “Last year we gave $1.3 million in medications out.”