NEW YORK NURSE: March 2008
by Mark Genovese
“There are fundamental principles shared by many religions,” explained Ahmar “Margie” Kyi, an RN who works at Ellis Hospital in Schenectady. “As a Buddhist, I put great emphasis on metta, which means ‘love and compassion for all.’ I feel a responsibility to practice this as much as I can by helping to relieve others from their suffering.”
Kyi is one of about two dozen nurses who volunteer at the Schenectady Free Clinic. She’s thankful for many things in her life today – such as being able to support her family and live without fear. Kyi came to the United States after being exiled from her native Burma in 1989 during a violent political uprising against a military dictatorship.
“I was seeking refuge and looking for a home,” Kyi said. “I found a peaceable society here that has given me respect and trust. I decided to express my gratitude by giving back to the less fortunate in our community. As a nurse, I can help others by donating my energy and time at the clinic to those who need health care.”
Two years ago, Kyi encouraged a colleague at Ellis, Susan Troll, to join her at the clinic. Through NYSNA’s NurseResponse program, Troll had gained extensive experience as a volunteer with Project Hope, helping survivors of the Indian Ocean tsunami and Hurricane Katrina. She was eager to work at the clinic. “You feel good when you help somebody,” Troll said. “It’s the reason I became a nurse in the first place.”
Like Kyi and Troll, some of the Free Clinic’s volunteers also work full-time. Others, like Mary D’Isabel, are retirees who have worked at Ellis in the past. “I wanted to do something that would help other people,” said, D’Isabel, who has been with the clinic for two years. “I came down one day, just to try it out, and I loved it.”
“I wanted to keep my nursing skills intact,” said retiree Sandra Voss. Voss has been a volunteer since the clinic’s inception five years ago, bringing with her diverse experience that included working at the Visiting Nurse Service of New York. At the clinic, she also works part-time in the pharmacy. “You consider that we see 60 to 100 people a day. That’s more than most physicians see.”
The nurses handle intakes and triage, do blood sugar and urine tests, and take vital signs and histories. They provide basic outpatient care and educate their patients on healthier living. The staff also includes other volunteer healthcare personnel.
“Our patients have chronic illnesses such as hypertension, diabetes, asthma, and heart conditions,” D’Isabel said. “Most don’t have Medicaid or make minimum wage and can’t afford the co-payments for insurance.”
Left to themselves, most of the patients wouldn’t seek care until there was an emergency. Without prompt diagnoses, proper prescription plans, or follow-up care, they would have a higher chance of morbidity and mortality. But, thanks to the clinic, they can receive medications regularly.
Patients are grateful for the care they receive. “One woman said to me, getting all teary: ‘What would we do if you weren’t here?” D’Isabel said. “They’d have nowhere else to go.”
“We can at least do a little bit on our part to help them,” added Voss.
“Our clinic serves about 2,500 patients each year. Yet we’re only scratching the surface,” said Executive Director William Spolyar. “There are probably 20,000 people in Schenectady County without health insurance.” By keeping these patients out of the emergency room, free clinics can save the healthcare industry millions of dollars each year. Despite this, the Schenectady clinic has struggled to survive.
Last spring, the State Department of Health told them that a grant for the next fiscal year wasn’t coming because of a new policy limiting discretionary funds. “So at the last minute, we learned we would be $350,000 short – which is half our budget,” Spolyar said. Some of the nurses helped to raise money and sought donations of supplies. Finally after many calls and visits, state officials restored $125,000 of the grant in December. The staff is still working to close the remaining gap.
The clinic is important to the staff because it’s important to the community. “There’s definitely a need here,” Troll said. “Some days, the waiting room will be full and there will be a line of patients going out into the hall.”
“When we had the funding to take in new patients, we would be here sometimes until 7:30 or 8 at night,” D’Isabel said. “We’d laugh because, if we were being paid, we’d all be saying: ‘No, we can’t do this.’ But because we weren’t, we didn’t care.”
For more information about the Schenectady Free Clinic, contact Executive Director Bill Spolyar at 518-344-7067.
Consider volunteering at a free clinic in your area. To locate a clinic, contact your county or municipal health department.