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The way we learned medicine at Grady was that you help the indigent,” says Poole, who says he finds helping those in need therapeutic for his own health. “I’ve had two failed back operations, but when I’m seeing these patients, it completely takes my mind off my back.”

Poole gives credit for starting the Good News project to Susie Harris, his neighbor and former nursing director at the Northeast Georgia Medical Center, where he was director of cardiology until he retired. Harris and Poole go back 35 years. “The nurses at the hospital used to be a little afraid of him,” Harris confides. “He’s a tough doctor, and he always demanded their best. But he’s also a good doctor and a good man.”

That mixture made Poole just the person to lead a new medical mission in Gainesville. In 1993, he and Harris first saw patients in cramped quarters at the Good News Mission, treating patients in two small rooms meant to be closets. By the end of 1994, the group had seen close to 4,000 patients, and they went looking for better space.

In the search, Poole discovered that the clinic would qualify for $600,000 in federal aid, but he decided not to take it. “The money had not only strings but also ropes and chains attached to it,” he says. “They wanted us to move to a better part of town and see a better clientele, and they wouldn’t let us start our day in the clinic with a prayer or devotional.”

Instead, Poole found private support to renovate a glass works storage facility next door to the mission. (Donor Ann Warren Thomas provided the “seed money,” he says.)

Against an industrial backdrop of aged warehouses, barbed wire fences, and a red- and white-checked water tower, the Good News Clinic opened its doors in 1995. Here patients have access to free medical services, including primary and specialist care. Ed Burnette, a 1961 graduate of Emory’s dental school, directs the clinic’s dental arm, the Green Warren Dental Clinic, named for Ann Thomas’s father.

Some 100 volunteers, 44 dentists, and 30 physicians (including 12 Emory alumni) keep the clinic running each weekday and three nights a month. “Plus, there are 50 doctors in town who will provide free consults,” says Poole. The clinic has only four salaried employees—two nurses, a dental assistant, and a full-time interpreter. In 2001, the clinic treated about 10,000 people. (BACK TO TOP)

About 65% of these patients are Hispanic workers and their families—some 40% employed in the Hall County poultry industry. In treating this group, Poole finds the biggest challenge is changing lifestyle to control high blood pressure, diabetes, and obesity.

One of his more dramatic cases involved a middle-aged Hispanic man who was losing strength in his legs and his hands. When the patient visited the Good News Clinic, he was already too weak to continue working at the poultry plant. Poole examined him and determined that he was headed toward paraplegia if something wasn’t done soon. Poole recruited a neurosurgeon to operate free of charge on two cervical disks pressing against the man’s spinal column. Today, the man walks normally and is back at work.

The local hospital even waived the charges for its services and, in fact, regularly donates lab and radiology work to the clinic. This is in part because of Poole’s advocacy and in part because it is good business. “In this instance, the hospital had to eat a little bill,” Poole says, “but in the end, the clinic saves them money. We keep people who can’t pay out of the hospital. We can offer good care for folks inexpensively because we are high touch and low tech. We see our patients often and can take our time with them, and they don’t need so many fancy tests. A long-term relationship with a doctor is a luxury most of these people have never had.”

In addition to free care, the clinic provides free medicine, most from doctors’ office samples. That practice has been complicated by recently tightened FDA regulations. In fact, the clinic may soon join other free clinics around the nation in fighting those regulations in court. “The FDA doesn’t want us to give free medicine because it fears physicians could make a mistake,” Poole says. “But free medicine is the base of our care. If a person doesn’t have a cent to his name, he can’t pay for medicine.”

Poole’s efforts have received recognition and gratitude in Gainesville, where the Rotary Club named him Man of the Year in 2001. He is uncomfortable in the spotlight, however, and would rather deflect attention toward his cause. He is convinced that free clinics are an important part of the solution for indigent care, and he sees a great need for more of them statewide. Neighboring states are far ahead of Georgia, with 36 free clinics in North Carolina, 22 in South Carolina, 20 in Florida, and 32 in Virginia. Poole is out to do something about that, encouraged by colleagues who have developed free clinics elsewhere in the state. (BACK TO TOP)

The word has spread

Every Friday, volunteers at the Jasper Community Food Pantry package groceries for more than 125 needy families in Pickens County. The pantry is based at the Episcopal Church of the Holy Family, where John Spitznagel, professor emeritus and former chair of microbiology at Emory School of Medicine, is a member.

Many of the clients of the food pantry have serious health problems, and their situation got Spitznagel and others to thinking. “We heard one sad story after another—single mothers trying to work and pay their bills, elderly people choosing between buying food or medicine,” he says.

To learn more about the extent of the need, he surveyed Jasper businesses and two local hospital emergency rooms and consulted food pantry and census data. He found that 14% of Pickens County residents live below the poverty level and that half of all those eligible for Georgia’s Peachcare program for children can’t afford the monthly co-pay.

Inspired by Poole (with whom he served on the house staff at St. Louis’s Barnes Hospital in the early 1950s), Spitznagel and his old friend Alton Hallum Jr., 62M, decided to start a free clinic of their own. Thanks to dogged persistence and hard work, the Good Samaritan Health and Wellness Center opened in Jasper this spring.

They’ve had a lot of help. A volunteer grant writer raised money for equipment. The Pickens County Commission donated land behind the county health department. The commission and the mayor of Jasper donated a trailer, and the clinic raised funds to buy two more. Volunteers renovated the space, which provides 4,000 square feet for clinical and social services.

To date, 30 physicians, almost 100 nurses, two dentists, and scores of laypeople have signed on to help. Four local pharmacists have agreed to help provide medicine, and the group has forged a working relationship with a local hospital.

Spitznagel is heartened at how the community has pulled together to care for the indigent. Like Poole, he and Hallum believe that grassroot efforts can succeed where federal programs have fallen short.

“Early in my practice, there was no Medicare or Medicaid,” says Hallum. “We told the affluent: ‘We need to charge you more to cover the costs for those who can’t pay.’ Now, the standards for Medicaid are tougher, and some 45 million people fall through the cracks.

“There has to be a system like this to take care of people who can’t pay. Our effort is run largely by retirees who want to give back. If everybody pitches in, we can fill in the gaps, and we can do it better and more efficiently than the government.” (BACK TO TOP)

Those with ears, let them hear

In 1995, William Warren IV, 79M, traded in a successful pediatrics practice in the Atlanta suburbs to establish his own medical practice for the working poor and homeless in a no-man’s land downtown. “This was a way to flesh out my Christianity,” says Warren, the great-great-grandson of Coca-Cola founder Asa Candler. “The more I thought and prayed about it, I found my calling was to the inner city.”

For three years, Warren volunteered at several free clinics around Atlanta, working at Techwood Baptist Center, the Mercy Mobile unit at Central Health in Grant Park, and even venturing as far north as Gainesville once a week to work alongside Sam Poole.

These were training grounds for Warren, and by 1998, he had learned some important lessons about what worked and what didn’t. For starters, he discovered he needed his own place. His practice in the Baptist Center was limited by space, and the health center there competed with other needs the church was trying to meet. “You can’t do job training, provide clothing and food, and dispense health care, all these little bits of things, all at the same time. You end up doing none of them particularly well,” says Warren.

Raising more than $2 million, including money of his own, Warren renovated an old warehouse to house his new clinic. The Good Samaritan Health Center sits north of Centennial Olympic Park. Each weekday from 8:30 to 5, two doctors, two nurse practitioners, two dentists, a counselor, support staff, and volunteers serve patients in need. The working poor make up 65% of the practice, and 10% of its patients qualify for Medicaid, which the clinic accepts.

Like his counterparts in north Georgia, Warren prizes his clinic’s private status and has little interest in federal aid with strings attached. (“This is a Christian mission,” he says. “If I want to hang the Ten Commandments on the wall, I can.”) Unlike the clinics in Gainesville and Jasper, however, Warren doesn’t characterize his as free. ”We have a different philosophy—that our patients want to pay what they can afford and that they should. We have a sliding scale. But people who can’t pay don’t.” Warren’s clinic is also the largest of the three clinics, with 23 paid staff members. (BACK TO TOP)

The patients who come to the Good Samaritan—some 1,300 a month—hear about the center by word of mouth and referrals from shelters and charitable organizations. “Their medical and dental needs are the same as yours or mine,” Warren says, “but their social needs are gargantuan. They have so much life complication and baggage. They live from crisis to crisis. If they’re hungry, they take care of that that day. If they have an earache, they will take care of that. If they have high blood pressure, well, that can wait.”

Warren recently saw a 13-year-old diabetic who had gone without insulin for two weeks. It took him two phone calls to reach her previous doctor to discuss her medications, more time to check the clinic’s pharmaceutical stock, and still more time to enroll the patient in a government assistance program for diabetics.

Providing medicine is essential to the practice, and an in-house drugstore, staffed by volunteer pharmacists, dispenses drug samples. The clinic enrolls some patients in programs offered by pharmaceutical companies for the poor. If Medicaid, the samples, and the drug programs cannot meet a patient’s needs, the clinic issues a medication voucher paid out of its operating budget, about $1.1 million per year.

Despite the many challenges inherent in operating such a clinic, Billy Warren, like the other good news doctors, finds immense joy in this work. “It’s true,” he says, “that ‘without a vision, the people perish.’ For me, being able to serve these patients every day, this is a dream come true.”

Physicians who would like to volunteer their time and service can call the following:

Good News Clinic in Gainesville: 770-503-1369
Good Samaritan in Jasper: 706-579-1226
Good Samaritan in Atlanta: 404-523-6571, ext. 226

Rhonda Mullen is an Atlanta freelance writer.








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