Healthcare in the Shadows

St. Mary’s Health Center in Savannah

Posted by on Monday, April 13, 2015 in News.

Entrance to St. Mary's

Arising from humble beginnings, St. Mary’s Health Center is a beacon of hope for adults with no health insurance in Chatham County, GA (Savannah).  This free clinic began as a community outreach in 2004 in the Cuyler-Brownville neighborhood with two volunteer nurse practitioners from Armstrong State University and one community physician volunteer. Twice a week these three pioneers came together to see poor people who had high blood pressure and no where to turn.  The volume of patients soon overwhelmed the small space in the St. Mary’s Community Center and the clinic moved to Florence Street to open full time.  The clinical providers were still volunteers but the clinic now had one staff member, a medical assistant, and a full time volunteer receptionist. The patients continued to come, they had complex diseases well beyond high blood pressure, and their numbers increased rapidly.  Soon, Florence Street was too small.

Today St. Mary’s Health Center occupies over 3000 square feet on the corner of Drayton and Henry streets.  There are two paid nurse practitioners–one from Armstrong State University and one from St. Joseph/Candler Health System (SJ/C).  The clinic serves as the medical home to 1300 patients.  All services are free to uninsured adults between 18 and 65, with incomes below 200% of the federal poverty level and not eligible for any federal healthcare programs.

When you visit this special place, the first question is: “Where does the money come from, to pay for all this?”  Federal grants secured by Armstrong State University Department of Nursing have made a significant positive impact on the evolution of St. Mary’s.  Over the past 8 years, these grants have helped the clinic pay for nurse practitioners and implement an electronic health record.  The largest contributions, however, come from the St. Joseph/Candler Health System.  Their mission to treat illness and promote wellness for all people is the foundation upon which St. Mary’s is built.

The driving force behind the vision, development and sustained services at St. Mary’s is Sister Pat Beber.  Sr. Pat works tirelessly to weave together a tapestry of people, services and funding to keep the clinic open.  She has such commitment to the needs of the community that she was able to convince the SJ/C leaders to open a second site in Garden City where a mostly Hispanic population is seen.  Her energy is infectious–once you meet her the pull to serve is irresistible.

This uplifting place and people do face challenges in caring for their patients, even with amazing support from SJ/C and Armstrong.  Georgia has not expanded Medicaid and the current Medicaid program is bare bones–covering only the required services under federal law. That translates into heartbreak for some of St. Mary’s patients.

NP office at St. Mary's

Today the nurse practitioners received test results on a young man they’ve seen who came in for knee pain two weeks ago.  After initial examination they were able to refer him to a volunteer orthopedic physician for consultation.  SJ/C performed x-rays and MRI at no cost.  Lab tests were also done at no charge.  Sadly, the patient has cancer in his knee and he has no insurance.  Now the hard work begins–can they and their consulting physician find someone to take this patient into a cancer treatment program at no charge?  Personal and professional networking has begun in earnest but there are no easy or quick solutions for this patient. And time is something he doesn’t have to spare.




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