The line formed long before the sun came up Friday, Aug. 19, the first day of the three-day free healthcare clinic organized by the Westchester-based Collaborative Underserved Relief and Education Network (CURE). With support from Remote Area Medical (RAM), CURE’s volunteer dentists, physicians, ophthalmologists, nurses, hygienists, technicians and all their auxiliaries delivered care to more than 2,000 people.
“The event was so much more than I had hoped it would be,” said Josette Szalko, executive director of CURE. “We had a great group of volunteers that really stepped up. It was physically and emotionally challenging, but also a really exhilarating experience.
“We provide a dignified environment for patients. It was hard for them to come, they didn’t know what to expect and they were nervous. A lot of the people who came through weren’t expecting the level of care and compassion that they received.”
Patients queued for services long before dawn, and received numbers as the sun rose. Upon registering, professionals met with each patient to take a brief health history, and to chart the patient’s course for the day: primary care and eye clinics were in the basement, and a dental clinic occupied the main floor. Volunteers — who also began arriving before 5 a.m. — met patients at the entrance to each clinic area for an exam before sending the patient toward a professional, waiting to provide care.
“Nowhere can these people go and get all these services under one roof in one day,” Ms. Szalko said. “Yes, they had to wait throughout the day, but otherwise seeing an ophthalmologist is totally inaccessible.”
In the dental clinic, 1,200 patients received care over three days. This included 1,000 extractions, 640 fillings and 300 cleanings.
Volunteers came from throughout the city and suburbs. Among them were many members of the Chicago Dental Society, but also nurses from the Veteran Administration hospitals, who helped patients better understand the medical services for which they are eligible, and volunteers from local churches who distributed snacks to patients in the waiting areas. The staff of Malcom X College, so impressed by the clinic that had moved in during the college’s registration period, collected donations and provided food on Saturday. Similarly, one student who was on campus to register for classes and buy books returned Saturday as a volunteer.
“I was absolutely overwhelmed, and it gave me hope,” Ms. Szalko said. “We all see so much bad news on television every night that it warmed my heart to see people stepping up and helping out.”
At discharge, patients met with volunteers to discuss follow-up care. Each patient received information for contacting two clinics where they could receive continued care. Some of the CURE volunteers will also be making follow-up calls to the patients in the coming weeks, to see if they’ve followed the hygiene instruction given to them.
Patients brought the volunteer clinicians innumerable challenges, but also gratitude for providing the care that has eluded them for so long. One woman who waited for care Friday returned to the clinic as a volunteer Saturday, while another patient ran to a nearby drug store and returned with a thank you card for her hygienist.
Check out our photos from the CURE/RAM clinic on our Facebook page.