RAM founder Stan Brock flew in to Lonesome Pine Airport on Friday to meet with local organizers about this year's event. Photo by Stephen Igo.
WISE - For one weekend every summer for the last eight years, Wise County hosts the largest free health care clinic in the world, counting all those without a roof.
Final preparations are under way for the Rural Area Medical (RAM) Health Expedition at the Wise County Fairgrounds July 20-22. Volunteer health professionals from around the country, and particularly Virginia, flock to the fairgrounds to provide free dental, eye and basic medical services to all comers.
Last year, more than 1,200 volunteers - roughly 900 of them physicians, dentists, nurses and other health care professionals - provided more than $1.3 million worth of free services during some 8,000 patient encounters, another record.
The annual RAM event in Wise County has set a new patient encounter record every year since it was first offered by the Knoxville-based "Wings of Hope" RAM Volunteer Corps eight years ago. People swarm to the fairgrounds for the three-day event not only from Southwest Virginia but other neighboring states of Appalachia, or even further.
There are two ways of looking at the astonishing record-setting pace of the Wise County event, said RAM founder Stan Brock. More and more people know about it, and get needed medical services, he said. But it's also a sad commentary on the state of health care access in America in general, and the Appalachian region in particular.
"We don't exactly ‘hope' for another record each year. It's not about records," said Brock after he flew in to Lonesome Pine Airport to meet with local RAM organizers about preparations for this year's event.
"It would be a good thing if we could set new records in the other direction, if for the right reasons. No, it's not about records. It's about state and federal systems and if they can sustain health care to these folks who need it. Which at this time, doesn't seem to be the case."
Nurse Practitioner Teresa Gardner, executive director of St. Mary's Health Wagon and local RAM organizing lightning rod, said the only records she cares about are those pertaining to medical services provided to those who need but can't afford it.
"I hope we have, as usual, a good number of people take advantage of these quality services. I mean, literally thousands of dollars' worth of quality care," she said. "The services will be here, the professionals will be available, and it is so important for those who maybe can't afford quality health care to come out, take advantage of quality care, and enhance their quality of life."
Dental services include extractions and in limited cases, free dentures. Eye care services include complete dilated eye exams, glaucoma testing, diabetic retinopathy screening, and prescription glasses assisted by the Lions Mobile Screening Units and Lions Club of Virginia. A range of hearing exams will be available.
A huge range of medical services will be offered, including specialist exams, EKGs, osteopathic manipulations, diabetes screening and education, bone density scans, blood work, cholesterol checks, pulmonary function (breathing) testing, chest X-rays, PAP smears, breast exams, prescription medication assistance, chiropractic services, skin exams including a biopsy if indicated, colon and prostate cancer screenings, echocardiograms, ultrasound, and sigmoidoscopies. Some tests will only be performed if medically indicated or otherwise determined by RAM clinicians.
Mammograms require appointments and can be arranged now by calling the Wise County Health Department at (276) 328-1920. Free transportation can be arranged by calling Mountain Empire Older Citizens, based in Big Stone Gap, at 1-888-877-6748 or (276) 523-7433, or by calling Four County Transit at 1-888-656-2272. Two weeks notice to arrange transportation would be appreciated.
It is not uncommon for health care professionals to detect or suspect more serious problems when providing basic services, Gardner said. Follow-up care is also part of the local RAM event and, pun intended, RAM-rodded by Gardner and her dedicated clutch of health providers at St. Mary's Health Wagon.
As he did last year, Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine is expected to attend this year's event. Kaine will volunteer in the registration center for a while, but the governor should expect to receive a hearing exam of his own, of the political rather than medical variety.
Brock said he will bend Kaine's ear about a way Virginia could make things easier to stage RAM in Wise County.
"It would be nice if the legislature in Virginia could make it simpler for (an out-of-state) doctor or dentist to just show up and volunteer," Brock said. "I wish Virginia would look at the Tennessee model, where it is extremely simple. Down there a medical professional shows up with their license and we put them right to work."
Gardner said Virginia requires documentation to go back-and-forth that must be notarized and the works. Impromptu volunteer health professionals are out of the question. She said it takes several weeks' worth of red tape aggravations to get health professionals cleared for the Wise event.
If Kaine's ears have a burning sensation, never mind. The governor has a RAM appointment in July, and Brock, a co-star of the fabled TV series "Wild Kingdom" of yesteryear, is not shy about doling out health care access prescriptions to politicians.
"Medical professional volunteers come in for this once-a-year large event here in Wise," Brock said. "Virginia should be able to make it easier on them, and us, to do so."