BRISTOL, Tenn. — In 1997, Beth Flannagan and the Mission Committee of First Presbyterian Church wanted to do something for those who didn’t have enough money to see a doctor — so they opened a free health care clinic in the region.
“About six of us sat around my kitchen table one Sunday afternoon and read an article in the Parade Magazine about how people couldn’t afford health care,” said Flannagan, a founding board member of Healing Hands Health Center. “All of us had a relative or knew someone in that position so we decided to do something about it.”
Healing Hands, which celebrates its 20th year this month, is a full scale health services facility that provides free medical, dental, vision, chiropractic and counseling services to the working uninsured.
Today, the clinic has more than 6,000 patient visits per year, 385 volunteers and 18 full-time staff members. But its beginnings were meager, according to Flannagan.
“We didn’t have any money so we spent months researching, studying and talking to doctors and dentists in the area to learn what we needed to open,” she said. “A few people even visited a free clinic in Roanoke, Virginia, to see how they operated.”
Committee members realized the clinic was “meant to be” within a few months of the first meeting, she added.
“Our committee grew to include more doctors, dentists and other churches. It wasn’t long before we had to hold community-wide meetings and were able to get some funding,” she said. “It just spread like wild fire and soon we were able to get the house where Abuse Alternatives is now.”
The house at 104 Memorial Drive was cleaned and painted by a few volunteers.
“We also found out about a doctor’s office that was closing in North Carolina,” she said. “So a few men drove their trucks over and got the medical equipment — they gave it to us — it was free.”
About 18 months after that first Sunday meeting, Flannagan said the clinic opened for one or two days a week from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. with one volunteer doctor. About six patients were seen each day. Committee members were “thrilled because we were meeting a need,” she said.
Many learned of the clinic by word of mouth and the number of patients “exploded.” A few years later, the clinic moved to a 4,600-square-foot building on Memorial Drive.
In 2015, the clinic moved to a 9,600-square-foot facility at 245 Midway Medical Park and expanded its service area to include Abingdon, Virginia and Elizabethton, Tennessee. Prior to that it served Bristol, Tennessee/Virginia, Blountville, Bluff City and Piney Flats, Tennessee.
Sara Davis, who has been a volunteer for 20 years, said a lot has changed over the years.
“Back then, I made phone calls, did filing, and helped people fill out their applications,” she said. “Now most everything is done online so I don’t file anymore — and I stopped helping people fill out applications the first time I had to tell someone they didn’t qualify for services. It was too hard.”
Healing Hands Medical Director Dr. Dave Arnold, who has been with the clinic for 11 years, said he has seen some heartbreaking cases over the years – as well as those with happy endings.
“I’ve seen people with stage four cancers and things of that nature,” Arnold said. “If they come in sooner, we would probably be able to help them — but sometimes they’re afraid to find out what’s wrong. I have one patient like that now — I can’t give the physical help he needs so I stop by his home and visit with him.”
Three years ago, he said a patient stopped by the clinic on a Thursday just to say hello.
“When he came into the clinic he had had one leg amputated,” he said. “And if he didn’t get some help he would have to have the other amputated as well. We were able to help him get the surgery he needed and as a result of that he still has his leg.”
Healing Hands Executive Director Helen Scott, who has been with the organization for 15 years, was emotional when she pulled out of a filing cabinet the chart of the fifth patient to be seen at the clinic.
“This woman is 55 years old and has been with us for the 20 years we’ve been open,” she said, thumbing through the file. “She was one of the first patients to be seen here. Her birthday is just a week from mine and without our help she probably would have died because she doesn’t have enough money or insurance to see a doctor.”
Scott added that the 20-year anniversary of the organization is also about the new patients who come to the clinic every day, like 30-year-old Brittany Baker, who got up from her seat in the waiting room, hugged Scott, and thanked her more than once for the kindnesses shown her since she came to the clinic for the first time last week.
“I’m a domestic violence survivor,” Baker said. “I had my jaw broken in June and I had to have surgery to repair it. I’m having problems with a couple of teeth and I don’t have insurance. My mom told me about this place and I came. Without the help of the dentists here, I could lose my teeth and my smile — and it’s about all I have left.”
Baker added that she’s never been to a health care facility where everyone was so nice.
“I almost couldn’t believe that most of the people here are volunteers,” she said. “Everyone is so kind and they made me feel important. They really care about people.”
Scott said: “That is why we’ve been here for 20 years. And I hope to be here as long as we’re needed.”