This is a personal “From the Field” story by Direct Relief Employee Katie Lewis, USA Partner Liaison.
We traveled about 60 miles northeast of Baton Rouge to visit Ginger Hunt, CEO at the RKM Primary Care Clinic in Clinton, a very rural part of the state. RKM, which opened in March 1999, is one of the newer buildings in the area. It operates six clinics throughout four parishes and treats about 75 patients a day. With some minor roof leaks at two of their sites, RKM escaped major damage from Hurricane Gustav. Running on a generator, the clinics were able to stay open 24/7 following the hurricane.
Ms. Hunt says that RKM prides itself on its quick and friendly service. In the waiting room, we spoke with a mother and daughter in to see a doctor about a foot injury. Both mentioned that the staff was much nicer at RKM than at the private practice and that the service is always faster. Of the more than 20,000 patients RKM sees each year, 26 percent live below the federal poverty line, 7.4 percent are unemployed, and 32.9 percent don’t have a high school education.
We moved on to St. Helena Community Health Center in Greensburg, another very rural, poor area. We spoke with Henrietta Spears, interim executive director of St. Helena, which serves more than 40,000 patients annually, 75 percent of whom are under- or uninsured. While the clinics weren’t damaged in the hurricane, they were closed for two days due to lack of power, water, and gas. A major obstacle for St. Helena is getting patients to come in to the office. Homes are sometimes more than 20 miles apart and residents are unable to afford transportation to the clinic. Many of St. Helena’s staff have lived in the area their whole lives and know the people they treat. Staff members often stop by patients’ homes after hours to make sure they have their medications or to bring food that patients wouldn’t be able to buy.
RKM and St. Helena serve similar populations and see the same problems. At both, many patients post-Gustav came in seeking mental health treatment. Depression and anxiety are common but spike after hurricanes. Fortunately, both health centers employ psychologists and social workers to provide treatment.