Kaine, Griffith turn out for RAM event

Stephen Igo • Jul 20, 2013 at 10:53 PM

WISE — Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., and Rep. Morgan Griffith, R-Salem, took turns being volunteers at the 14th annual Remote Area Medical (RAM) Health Expedition in Wise County on Saturday.

The two members of Congress also announced $25,000 in funding toward a new mobile health care unit for The Health Wagon, Southwest Virginia’s charitable health organization that has been a vital partner for staging RAM events in Wise County since the first was held in 2000.

Kaine and Griffith were joined in Saturday’s funding announcement by Dominion Virginia Power’s Preston Sloane, the station chief of Dominion’s new Virginia City Hybrid Energy Center, the utility’s newest 585- megawatt power station built and operational since 2012 in Wise County near downtown St. Paul.

Sloane announced Dominion’s own $75,000 gift to The Health Wagon’s effort to raise roughly $300,000 for a new mobile unit to replace one that is beginning to show wear and tear. Health Wagon Executive Director Teresa Gardner said Saturday a new mobile unit will cost around $227,000, but equipment and other essentials will push the cost closer to $300,000.

That unit has already been ordered, and the fundraising will continue until it’s paid off, Gardner said. But the significant funding announced at Wise County’s RAM on Saturday certainly boosts the effort, much to the glee of Dr. Bill Hazel, Virginia’s secretary of health and human resources.

Hazel always volunteers his medical expertise at RAM.

Dominion is “extremely pleased to contribute to the ongoing success story of The Health Wagon,” Sloane said. “The Health Wagon has for more than 30 years now helped fill the health care needs of underserved and needy Southwest Virginians. We hope our contribution will help The Health Wagon provide many more years of such vital service to the area.”

That service is on exemplary display at the fairgrounds this weekend.

As usual, RAM was doing a bustling business by the crack of dawn Saturday as those seeking free medical, dental and vision services swarmed the Wise County Fairgrounds. More than 1,500 volunteers, including an army of health care professionals of all manner of specialties, treated well over 1,400 folks on RAM’s opening day on Friday.

By 8 a.m. Saturday, more than 600 individuals had been registered for services and more were getting registered by the minute, said Paula Meade, The Health Wagon’s clinical director. Both Meade and Gardner have doctorate degrees as nurse practitioners, a point Phyllis Everett, president of the Virginia Council of Nurse Practitioners, said is especially notable for this year’s RAM.

Because of Virginia law, in past years nurse practitioners — who can do practically everything a physician does to deliver basic medical treatment — could only act as registered nurses during the previous 13 RAM events, Everett said.

Nurse practitioners can “work at a distance from physicians, yet still act as a team with physicians,” she said, functioning much like a physician in the ability to diagnose, prescribe and treat ailments, in collaboration with physicians.

“That new law is very important in an area like this where there isn’t a lot of physicians to go around. Nurse practitioners can make a huge impact on health care access to underserved areas,” Everett said.

Meade said this year’s patient load at the three-day event might rival other record-setting years because of the two-year turndown in the region’s coal mining industry. Good paying mining jobs with excellent health benefits are becoming fewer and farther between, she said.

“The mining layoffs have hurt coal hard, so I think that’s why we’re having such a huge turnout this year,” Meade said. “But really we’re used to big turnouts. Things have been going very well. Everything is just so well organized any more and we have to thank the tremendous response of all of our volunteers for that.”

As for the members of Congress making an appearance on Saturday, Kaine has prior experience as an impromptu volunteer, taking his spot in the patient registration center for at least three hours. Griffith visited three or four previous Wise County RAMs, but this was the first time he expected to assume Kaine’s spot at a patient registration table.

“The other times I came it was to visit, to see what was going on,” he said. “But that’s why I came today, to volunteer at least a little. I think what they do here is absolutely phenomenal (and the work of so many volunteers) is just fantastic.”

Stan Brock, founder of the Knoxville-based RAM, said Wise County’s 14th RAM notched the 700th such event for his outfit. While the Wise County event quickly grew into the largest in the country, Brock said “it was big from the start.”

“I saw photographs of the very first one we held up here, out at the (Lonesome Pine Airport) and there was a lot of people there even then,” he said.

Brock said he started RAM “essentially as an airborne overseas operation, and it just morphed into events like this in the United States in 1991. And it’s just gotten bigger and bigger ever since.”

Even so, Brock said he would like to get back to doing more in other countries.

“We found the need was so great in this country that we had to cut back on what we had been doing overseas,” he said. “But with 18,000 volunteers and the need that is there around the world, we don’t want to forget folks in the Third World who are hurting pretty bad.”

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