Community Clinic Staff Eager to Help Uninsured

Doctors at 12 South

Meharry 12 South clinic is open Thursday nights.

On Thursday evenings, while most are out fighting rush-hour traffic to get home, the Meharry 12 South Community Clinic is opening its doors to serve Nashville's sick, and it's doing it for free.

In 2010, six students at Meharry Medical College noticed the rising numbers of uninsured Tennesseans and decided to open a free clinic in the 12 South neighborhood. Their dream has come true: The Meharry 12 South Community Clinic celebrated its first year of operations in September, with a mission to promote access to health care as a basic human right.

"There was an upperclassman named Rebecca Pfaff and she talked to about six students on campus. We were all at different levels, first-year medical students on up," said Naomi Bitow, 34, one of the clinic's founders. "We came together and we got more students involved."

Co-Executive Director Veronica Ralls said the clinic is growing.

"We have seen a rise in patients over the past year — we've actually seen 136 patients now and we've seen almost 300 visits," she said. "So that number continues to rise, and we have had an increase in patients each week."

Jasmine Figgins, 24, said she keeps coming to 12 South because it provides everything she would get from a "normal" doctor's office.

"When I found out about this clinic, it was a blessing — for one, just the fact that I was able to come here, because I don't have insurance," she said. "For the time being, I'm able to come here, I'm able to get the services that I need, I can make sure that I can maintain my health and that I stay on track as far as being a healthy individual."

Although the clinic is open only one night a week, plans to expand are in the works, including offering more medical services starting next year.

"A couple of things that we're doing is we're offering (free) flu shots for the first time. ... We're working with the Meharry Dental School to provide dental services, which is hopefully going to start in January," said Co-Executive Director Nick Kramer, 26. "We've also been working with TSU to get their school's social work to be involved where they would have a licensed social worker come in with some students and they would be able to help see our patients."

Even though students run the clinic, an attending physician is on-site every week to oversee operations. Dr. Jim Sullivan, who serves as chief clinical adviser, said he tries to work at least once a month.

"It's a tremendous amount of fun. It's a real pleasure to see these guys all dressed up, all the enthusiasm and so forth," Sullivan said.

"Another thing is that they put in an enormous amount of work in getting this going, getting permissions, getting licenses, getting grants, one of the laboratories has given them the lab tests, grants gave them flu shots, stuff like that. It's just exciting to see them so excited and working so hard."

The students receive no pay or school credit for working at the clinic. With demanding schedules, full-time residences and the overall busy lives of full-time medical students, they believe their time at the clinic is just as valuable and rewarding to them as doctors, as caregivers and as people.

"A lot of people that come to Meharry come with that idea of 'We want to go out and we want to help the people.' We don't want to be the physicians out playing golf five days a week," said Nicholas Conley, 22.

"We want to be out there getting our hands dirty in peoples' lives and helping them. This clinic allows us to do that for around 15 percent of Davidson County that's uninsured. We can be there fulfilling that role that they need."

From The Tennessean, November 6, 2013. To see the article in The Tennessean with an accompanying video, click here.