Dr. John Pallin relaxed in an open room inside the St. Joseph Parish medical clinic. He took a few a moments before beginning his Thursday-morning volunteer shift and explained how he had just donated three deer to the church’s soup kitchen.
“I hunt, but I don’t eat,” Pallin explained.
Another doctor entered the room, wondering the best way help a patient having an issue with earwax.
“What’s the best solution to getting the wax out of the ear?” he asked.
“Abstinence,” joked Pallin.
The retired physician suggested the proper method of care—Debrox, for loosening the wax—noted that he himself wears a hearing aid “from shooting guns in Vietnam,” and went on to detail the mechanics and functions of the ear canal.
“The ear canal in not just a hole,” he said, “it’s a functioning organ.”
Pallin is part of a team of volunteers who dedicate their time and expertise at the St. Joseph Medical Screening Facility. The clinic serves those who would not be able to afford medical service elsewhere.
“We didn’t go to medical school to make money,” Pallin explained. “We went to medical school to help people.”
The St. Joseph clinic opened its doors in 2002. The facility is located in a small, blue house located on parish grounds in downtown Pensacola. It is funded through charitable contributions.
“We felt like if we had a free clinic we could provide services to people who couldn’t get that service unless they go to the emergency room,” explained Dr. Dave Conkoe, a clinic co-founder.
Initially, the clinic consisted of two doctors, two nurses and a couple of clerical volunteers. It was a slow start.
“We waited three weeks to see our first patient,” Conkoe said. “We were patient, as patient as can be.”
Eventually, people began coming to the clinic. In 2007, there were 2,700 patient-visits. The next year, it was up to 4,700.
“Now,” Conkoe said, “we’re up to about 6,000 patient-visits a year.”
The volunteer team has also grown. Today, there a dozen doctors, between 20 and 30 nurses, about five social workers, as well as additional clerical help.
The facility operates three days a week with a consistently full slate. They help the patients they can and refer others to wherever the needed aid is available.
The clinic’s services are available to people who earn less than two hundred percent of the national monthly poverty threshold.
“People without insurance,” said Conkoe. “People without money—no ticket, no laundry.”
Over the last few years, clinic volunteers have seen their cliental both increase and change. The struggling economy sent previously stable individuals toward the medical fringes.
“We used to see homeless and addicted people,” said Dr. Tom Williams. “Now, we see a lot of people who use to work but are no longer employed—they’re the ones that have suffered the most in this economic downturn.”
Pallin recalled a recent conversation with a contractor who came to the clinic looking for medical help.
“He said he hadn’t put down concrete in a year,” the doctor said. “It’s tough to live like that.”
In addition to medical services, the clinic also connects patients with any needed social services. They help them apply for aid, point them in the right direction.
“We’ll call for you,” explained Dr. Micky Hite. “We’ll make it happen.”
Hite sat at a small table with Susan Heisler near the front of the clinic. It’s the first stop a patient makes.
Heisler got turned on to the clinic while working in St. Joseph’s soup kitchen. She wanted to help, wanted to contribute to the lives of others.
“Maybe they just need a smile that day,” she said. “That goes a long way.”
One of the clinic nurses noted that three-quarters of the people that came into the facility actually needed medical help. But everyone needed to see the social services department.
“Did they say that?” Hite asked, before pausing to consider the assessment. “Actually, yes.”
On Thursday mornings, the clinic offers dental services. They size up issues and refer patients to the Escambia County Dental Cooperative or the dental clinic on Pensacola State College’s Warrington campus.
“Mostly just simple restorations and extractions,” explained Dr. Susan Sasser.
Sasser used to have a practice in Mobile, Ala. Now she donates her skills to St. Joseph’s.
“I just felt the need to come out and help,” the dentist said. “It’s very rewarding as far as being able to help other people.”
The inverse of that is also an apparent motivation.
“I get more good out of it than the patients,” said Dr. Alex Gup. “I do it to help myself.”
Up at the clinic’s check-in desk, volunteer Mary Bond summed it up nicely.
“It’s a privilege,” she said. “The Lord said, ‘If you’re doing for these people, you’re doing for me.’ You just see all the goodness in it.”
ST. JOSEPH MEDICAL SCREENING FACILITY
140 W. Government St.
Open Tuesday and Thursday mornings, and Wednesday afternoons.