Volunteers at Stanwood clinic provide health care to the uninsured

STANWOOD — Steve Leach was running out of options.

An insulin-dependent diabetic, Leach had lost his job, his medical insurance and hope to find a way to get the medicine he needed to live.

“I was betwixt and between help from the state and getting on Medicare,” said the Lake Stevens man. “I walked in the door at Safe Harbor Free Clinic and was surprised by the smiles on people’s faces. Everyone was so friendly, I didn’t feel like a beggar or a bum.”

That was two years, not long after the free clinic opened two Friday nights a month in the Skagit Regional Medical building in Stanwood.

The primary goal of the clinic is to provide free, compassionate, quality care to people who are uninsured, said Safe Harbor executive director Julie Vess.

Since then, the free clinic has served more than 2,000 individuals, including Leach, who found out he could get help with his insulin from a pharmaceutical company until his federal medical coverage kicks in this year.

“There’s no way in hell I would have received the help and the information I needed without the people at Safe Harbor,” Leach said.

The free clinic runs on the work of 165 volunteers — a rotating roster that includes four doctors, three physician assistants, a nurse practitioner, lab personnel, nurses and medical school students, along with people who keep records, serve snacks, greet patients and help them find out about other social services in the county.

Vess estimated that more than 125,000 people in Island, Skagit and Snohomish counties are without medical insurance.

These people include migrant farm workers, unemployed people and homeless families, she said. “People are hurting everywhere.”

The needs are so great, the free clinic now is open every Friday evening from 6 to 9 p.m., Vess said.

Anybody can go on any Friday to ask for care on any problem. The clinic asks that people with problems related to foot care go the first Friday of the month. Those who suffer from depression, diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, thyroid issues and other chronic problems should go the first or third Fridays.

New this month, a women’s health clinic on the fourth Fridays is scheduled to offer help to uninsured women who need breast exams and gynecological services, including pap smears and testing for sexually transmitted diseases.

Julie Ferguson, whose day job is as a medical office receptionist, is in charge of the new women’s clinic. Her husband volunteers for Safe Harbor, too.

“We feel called by the Lord to reach out to help others, especially mothers because they often put their families before themselves,” Ferguson said. “The next grant request we write will be to provide mammograms.”

Retired Camano Island nurse Celia Hartley, who serves on the Safe Harbor board, also hopes for the donation of an ultrasound machine for the women’s clinic.

“People have been very generous because they know how many people don’t have regular medical care. And I don’t see it getting any better,” Hartley said.

Along with providing care for ear infections and high cholesterol, clinic volunteers have saved lives, including a woman who showed up in the midst of a heart attack victim and someone who showed up threatening suicide, said Dr. James Grierson, chairman of the Safe Harbor board of directors.

“Because Safe Harbor’s volunteer medical staff cares so much about people, some patients are getting better care than they might receive other places,” said Grierson, who lives on Camano Island. “We love what we do. By 6 p.m. on a Friday, I’ve already put in a 10- or 12-hour day. But when we open the doors for the free clinic, I am energized.”

The feeling is contagious, said medical student Sarah Steele, 27, of Mount Vernon. Steele, a student of Pacific Northwest University of Health Sciences in Yakima, volunteers once a month at Safe Harbor after her shift at Skagit Valley Hospital.

“I love the rewarding nature of volunteering. Some people just need someone who will listen,” Steele said. “I love the hugs we get from patients, who are so thankful and appreciative.”

With donations from individuals, area tribal governments, churches, service clubs and business owners, the Safe Harbor Free Clinic gets by. However, the clinic’s development director Bill Kluin would like to see 300 families in the area contribute $25 a month to keep the clinic going without worry. In the meantime, fundraisers such as a pancake breakfast scheduled for Feb. 25 keep it open.

“If we can do this right here in Stanwood, there’s no reason we can’t see more free clinics across the state,” Grierson said. “We have a lot of people to help.”

Gale Fiege: 425-339-3427; gfiege@heraldnet.com.

Learn more about the clinic

To learn more about the services at Safe Harbor Free Clinic, call 425-870-7384 or go to www.safeharborfreeclinic.org.

The clinic is offered from 6 to 9 p.m. Fridays at Skagit Regional Medical, 9631 269th St. NW, Stanwood.

The annual fundraising breakfast and silent auction to benefit the clinic is set for 7 a.m. to 1 p.m. Feb. 25 at Our Savior Lutheran Church, 27201 99th Ave. NW, Stanwood.

Safe Harbor Free Clinic patient statistics

Residence: Snohomish County, 55 percent; Island County 30 percent; Skagit County, 9 percent

Those without a stable home: 26 percent

Race: White, 84 percent; Hispanic, 9 percent; other, 5 percent

Age: Up to 19, 12 percent; 20-29, 19 percent; 30-39, 17 percent; 40-49, 20 percent; 50-59, 19 percent; 60-64, 6 percent; 65 and older, 3 percent

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