It didn't matter that for 20 years, he had safely navigated one of the world's largest commercial airplanes, 231 feet in length, with a 195-foot wing span and weighing up to 834,000 pounds at take off.
At age 70, Heitritter was learning how to navigate an earth-bound vehicle, the Puget Sound Christian Clinic's 28,000 pound, 40-foot medical van.
The organization provides medical care to patients without health insurance during weekly stops in Edmonds and Snohomish.
"It's got a very large turning radius," he said. "You have to plan ahead when you turn from one street to another. You have to be very aware of trees, branches, wires and overhanging obstacles."
It took about six months to log all the required hours behind the wheel to earn a commercial driver's license -- and all that to work as a volunteer.
If Heitritter drove the truck to Snohomish with a supervising driver, he got in one hour of driving, sat for six hours while the van was set up and patients were treated, then drove the van back to its home base at a north Seattle church.
Net gain for a day's worth of work: two more logged hours of the on-the-road experience.
"But he very much wanted to do that," his wife, Lynn Heitritter, said. "It's absolutely critical."
For a mobile health care program that's based on wheels, if there's no one to drive the van, no medical care can be provided.
Ron Heitritter's work, though, is just half of the Edmonds couple's story.
Each Tuesday morning the van sets up shop for its weekly four hours of patient appointments at the Edmonds United Methodist Church.
Last spring, the church sent out an email asking for someone to organize the van's visits from the ground up -- finding medical volunteers and people willing to help coordinate the appointment schedule, organizing training on everything from blood-borne diseases to patient privacy laws and ensuring each volunteer had the required 15 pieces of documentation to work in a medical setting.
Lynn Heitritter, 64, a registered nurse, knew the minute she saw the email it was a job she wanted.
"We saw a great need for it," she said. "A lot of people have fallen through the cracks and have not gotten medical care."
The clinic serves people who can't even afford the sliding fee offered by other nonprofit clinics, including people who had jobs but were laid off and have no job and no insurance, she said.
"These people were really hurting and needed medical attention and had nowhere to go," she said.
Since March, when the weekly clinics began in Edmonds, 104 patients have been treated, with 76 returning for follow-up care.
"We've had people that have gone without medications for three years because they couldn't afford the doctor's visit to get the prescription," Lynn Heitritter said.
The couple felt well prepared for their roles. After Ron Heitritter retired from piloting 747s, the couple made multiple humanitarian trips to Africa.
In 2003, Ron Heitritter flew 318 missions in six months for Air Serv International, which provides flight services to humanitarian organizations.
From 2004 to 2008 they volunteered for six-month stints at a home for abandoned babies and HIV-infected infants in South Africa.
Two years ago, they celebrated their 40th anniversary by making a return trip. "Instead of a party, we decided the most meaningful thing to us was to go back to Africa for 40 days of service," Lynn Heitritter said.
All that before their work at the clinic began last year. Ron Heitritter averages 15 to 20 volunteer hours a week.
Lynn Heitritter averages 55 hours of week, much of it occurring during off-clinic hours, answering patient questions, scheduling volunteers and monitoring lab results for the volunteer medical staff.
Then there are the unofficial duties. Last week, she was at Harborview Medical Center to be with a clinic patient who was being informed of a terminal cancer diagnosis.
"It's more than medical care that we're trying to provide," she said. "We have an opportunity and it's a privilege to be able to serve. We love our patients. We absolutely love it."
Sharon Salyer: 425-339-3486 or email@example.com
Mobile medical van
The mobile medical van operated by the Puget Sound Christian Clinic makes weekly stops in Edmonds from 8 a.m. to noon on Tuesdays at the Edmonds United Methodist Church, 828 Caspers St. Call 425-298-3774 to schedule an appointment.
It also provides care every Thursday from 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. in Snohomish at the Cross View Church, 604 Avenue C East. Call 425-679-1232 for an appointment.
The van, staffed by medical volunteers, provides basic medical care and referrals.
The suggestion donation at either clinic site is $10 per visit.
Free DPT immunizations
Free immunizations to protect against whooping cough, tetanus and diphtheria will be offered at the Puget Sound Christian Clinic's medical van during a special immunization clinic from 1 to 5 p.m. July 24 at the Edmonds United Methodist Church, 828 Caspers St. Those eligible for free immunizations are adults, age 18 and older, who don't have health insurance of any kind, including Medicaid and Medicare. The shots will be offered first come, first served.
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