Muriel Brown excitedly recalled "a wonderful success story" that, to her, sums up the mission and value of the new Bath Health Care Ministry.
This true-life tale involves a young lady who showed up sick, depressed, out of work, lacking health insurance and dressed frumpily. She saw a doctor who put her on antidepressants.
"She came back a month later. She had lost weight, her hair was clean, she was dressed much better, and she had a smile and a job," Brown said. "She said ‘I just need to tell you how much better I feel.’ I mean, what a difference in this girl. I get shivers when I talk about her."
Brown serves as director of the ministry that began operation in February 2006. Located at 23 Liberty St., it’s the fourth health facility of its kind to open in the Southern Tier in recent years. All the ministries provide free health care to people without medical insurance whose annual family incomes fall below 200 percent of the federal poverty guidelines. For example, the federal line for a single person is approximately $10,000, so the ministry is open to single adults making less than $20,000.
"Those people that fall between the cracks, this is what we’re here for," said Brown, a full-time nurse at the Steuben Health Care Center, who puts in an additional 40 to 50 hours per month at Bath Health Care Ministry. She is assisted by a medical coordinator, Dr. Stoner Horey. The ministry is staffed by a team of five medical professionals and 20 registered nurses who all volunteer at least a few hours per month.
Presently, the office is only open by appointment. Brown said she’s hoping for increased staffing that will soon allow for regular hours. She added that opening ceremonies for Bath Health Care Ministry didn’t take place until May 4 because organizers were intent on first laying a firm foundation.
"We didn’t want to be overwhelmed and not be able to meet the demand. We don’t want anybody to get stressed out about volunteering," Brown explained.
Cases have ranged from children who need physicals for summer camp; people with high blood pressure, diabetes, leg ulcers and depression; and those who are trying to quit smoking. The ministry also strives to obtain needed medication at reduced or no cost, and makes referrals for such needs as pap smears and mammograms.
Deacon Raymond Defendorf, pastoral administrator of St. Mary’s in Bath, noted that one in eight people in Chemung, Schuyler and Steuben counties have no insurance or ability to pay for health care.
"We think the need is extensive all over, but in Bath we are the county seat and many people live in the area because of the other services available," he said.
Brown said that she knows of many Southern Tier folks who, in everyday life, must choose between purchasing medication and food.
"There are huge disparities in our country in health care, and that’s a travesty in this day and age. This is a power nation," said Brown, a parishioner of St. Gabriel in Hammondsport.
She added that she became more acutely aware of health-care crises while spending several days in Mississippi late last year as a volunteer for relief efforts related to Hurricane Katrina. There she encountered people who, among their many losses, had been stripped of regular health care and their medication.
"It changed me in many ways," Brown acknowledged, saying the Mississippi experience was her springboard for getting on board with the Bath Health Care Ministry that was just getting started.
Deacon Defendorf was instrumental in the launching of both the Bath Health Care Ministry as well as the first Health Ministry of the Southern Tier. That operation began eight years ago at the former St. Patrick’s Church in Corning, where Deacon Defendorf was pastoral associate at the time. It is now located at 300 Nasser Civic Center Plaza (phone 607/962-2032) and contains three medical and two dental exam rooms.
The successful ministry in Corning — according to Deacon Defendorf, the nonprofit effort has served more than 1,000 people — has spawned two other similar ministries in addition to Bath. One is the Family Health Center of Elmira, located in the Elmira Medical Arts Building, 571 E. Market St. (phone 607/732-5431). The other is Schuyler County Health Check, Mill Creek Center, 106 S. Perry St., Watkins Glen (phone 607/535-8145).
"That has just exploded. They are doing so much, and so well," Deacon Defendorf said, adding that Health Ministry of the Southern Tier’s board — to which he belongs — hopes to eventually open a site in Hornell.
These ministries depend on a support network of health-care agencies, churches of various denominations and other community organizations including Catholic Charities. In fact, the Bath ministry is located in the same building as Catholic Charities Turning Point, which provides food and other services to the poor. Also crucial are a wide range of financial resources, from the United Way and grant-writing to fund-raising events and private donations.
"It takes a whole community to raise a clinic," Brown remarked.
EDITOR’S NOTE: To volunteer as a professional nurse or medical provider, or to schedule an appointment at Bath Health Care Ministry, call 607/776-8085, ext. 218.