November 2012

While Healthcare War Rages on, Bluffton-Jasper County Volunteers in Medicine Gives Neighbors a Medical Safe House

Author: Debbie Szpanka

It’s a subject that puts anxiety in the lives of the young and fear in the lives of the old. It puts neighbors, friends and family in the crossfire of a war of words. Mostly though, it puts millions of Americans in a financial, mental, and physical maze, not knowing where or how to get basic needs met.

Healthcare: No one really knows what to do about it, how to solve it or how to even talk about it. In the meantime, neighbors are suffering, going without medicine and treatment and compounding their health issues.

Bluffton resident Laurie Shay knows. As office manager of Bluffton-Jasper County Volunteers in Medicine, she is on the frontlines of the national healthcare crisis and sees how the lack of medical insurance and healthcare really affects people—some of the same people you see while walking your dog, shopping for groceries or attending your kid’s soccer game.

“I see people who have diabetes who don’t have insulin. I see people with hypertension without any medicine. I see people who desperately need medication who can’t afford it, and I see it every day,” Shay said.

Shay, who volunteers more than 40 hours a week as office manager, patient intake coordinator and volunteer coordinator, has been at the Bluffton clinic since before it opened to patients on September 19, 2011.

“Even after volunteering for more than four years at free medical clinics, I still get goose bumps when I speak about what I see,” she said. “I also get goose bumps when patients tell me how grateful they are. I have one diabetic patient, in her late 50s, who brings me a gift every holiday—and I mean, every holiday, like Memorial Day.”

According to Donna Smith, board chairman and volunteer administrator, Shay embodies the spirit of neighbors providing for neighbors in their time of need. “This need won’t go away anytime soon, even if ‘Obamacare’ is implemented,” she said. “There just aren’t enough health care providers to do the job. In Jasper County alone, there are 2,300 people for every healthcare provider. There is no way people can be taken care of in some pockets of our country and our neighborhoods, because the medical infrastructure just isn’t there.”

A third of the clinic’s patients are suffering from diabetes, hypertension, obesity or a combination of those issues. “Most of our patients have already foregone their medicines or treatments and are sliding down a slippery slope of health consequences; we are already their last resort,” Smith said.

While Hilton Head Island’s Volunteers in Medicine was the first clinic of its kind in the nation, each clinic operates independently. Today, there are more than 90 non-profit medical clinics, providing free medical care to their uninsured neighbors.

“Together, with so many good people and businesses in this community, the Bluffton-Jasper County Volunteers in Medicine is off and running,” Smith said. “Each clinic must be supported and staffed by its own neighbors as it serves its neighbors. It’s a concept and a reality worth working for every day.”

The clinic currently has nearly 800 patients and, on average, patients have had at least three appointments. Most are from Bluffton; most are women, and more than 70 percent are English-speaking. “These statistics indicate that people who were once considered middle class are using social services due to their economic situation. The demand for the services of Volunteers in Medicine, we believe, will dramatically increase,” Smith said.

“Most of our patients are the head of their households; if they are sick, there’s a domino effect on their children and their ability to work. We want our neighbors well and back to work so the community does not have more social issues as a byproduct,” she continued.

Dr. Barry Hellman, retired cardiologist from Hilton Head Island, is the clinic’s new Medical Director

It was just January two years ago that a group of people came together to plan a clinic serving Bluffton and Jasper County. The clinic now serves patients four days a week. Dr. Barry Hellman, retired cardiologist from Hilton Head Island, is the clinic’s new medical director. Other volunteers include a gynecologist, a nurse practitioner, an endocrinologist, two internists, an emergency doctor, a radiologist and a nutritionist.

The next step is expanding the clinic with more volunteer doctors, nurses, assistants, grant writers and other staff. “It’s an exciting time to get in on the ground floor of this much-needed service for our community,” Smith said.

Bluffton-Jasper County Volunteers in Medicine, a non-profit free medical clinic, provides care for the uninsured working or living in Bluffton, Hardeeville, Ridgeland and the unincorporated parts of Jasper County. It is one of more than 90 independent clinics under the guidance of the National Volunteers in Medicine Alliance. The clinic is located at 132 Bluffton Road in Bluffton across from the post office on Hwy. 46. To volunteer, fundraise, write grants or help in anyway, call the clinic at (843) 706-7090 or contact Donna Smith, clinic administrator at

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