WISE - Cloud-clogged skies that provided a soppy start to the eighth annual Remote Area Medical (RAM) Health Expedition at the Wise County Fairgrounds also fended off a visit to the event by Gov. Tim Kaine on Friday.
Brief rain showers that fell during the morning hours were shrugged off by more than 1,200 volunteers helping to deliver free medical and dental services to a similar number of damp but determined individuals seeking those services.
"Except for a rainy morning, it's been going well," said Stan Brock, founder of the Knoxville-based outfit that provides similar - but none as large - free health clinics around the globe.
Roughly 500 people were at the gates beginning around 3 a.m. Friday, Brock said, and 640 had been registered by 5:30 a.m., 30 minutes before patients were to be admitted to the fairgrounds. By 9 a.m. 1,217 people were registered.
Kaine was due to arrive at 11 a.m. His plane was on time approaching Lonesome Pine Regional Airport, but a break in the weather was not. The aircraft bearing the governor, his wife and children could not land and reportedly headed on for Michigan, where Kaine and his family were bound after their aborted Wise County visit.
Bob Spera, fixed base operator and owner of Liberty Flying Service at Lonesome Pine, said the ceiling over the airport as the governor's plane approached was a mere 100 feet with one-half mile visibility. Instrument Landing System (ILS) equipment has been installed at Lonesome Pine, but it has not been turned on yet. Spera said that wouldn't have made any difference Friday morning anyway.
"Even if they (Federal Aviation Administration) had it on this morning, (the governor's flight crew) could not have got down that low," Spera said. "And even when they do turn it on, we don't know what the minimums will be yet. Probably 300 feet on up. But, no, nobody could have landed here this morning no matter what."
The reason the ILS is not operable is because the FAA requires other improvements, Spera said, such as repainting the runway markings at Lonesome Pine and removing some approach obstructions. Those upgrades await state dollars and a local match, he said.
For over 1,200 volunteers already getting their feet wet at the eighth annual RAM Health Expedition, a little wet stuff was no deterrent to getting on with the business of providing free medical and dental services to the scores of patients resigned but also unfazed by occasional rain.
"Everyone is here because they choose to be here, and this gives not only our students but our medical and other staff an opportunity to develop new skills - like hydro engineering," quipped R. Edward Howell, chief executive officer for the University of Virginia's Medical Center in Charlottesville. "The last little while, I've been into water diversion myself."
It seems some of the rainy runoff chose a portion of the UVA Med Center digs to flow and gather. No matter. Howell said about 160 students and UVA Med Center staffers were slogging through a RAM experience, and even wet is good.
"This is a wonderful opportunity for our students and also provides our staff members the experience of the provision of health care outside the academic community, and gives us all a sense of outreach - connecting to the people we serve," he said. "We feel we are serving a need. Each year more and more people come. Each year it grows, so that suggests there is a need out there that we're meeting here today."
Dr. Robert M. Bennett, a Richmond cardiologist with the UVA group, is serving his fifth RAM event in Wise County.
"A lot of folks have never seen a cardiologist, and this is an opportunity for them to see a specialist. I guide them on treatment or do they need invasive treatment, like a stent or something of that nature. If someone has angina (pain from the heart) we devise a plan. Where do we go from here? Which ones need tests and which ones need medicines?" he said.
"I greatly enjoy doing this. I always say, I get a lot more out of the clinic than the clinic gets out of me. You know, it takes us back to basics. Not everybody can be treated in a routine, pristine medical setting. It's not a bad thing for professionals to work in these conditions."
The Lions Club of Virginia is a major player in every RAM Health Expedition event in Wise County. Ray and Dawn Quinn of Broadway, near Harrisonburg, are husband-wife volunteers and part of an army of more than 300 Lions Club volunteers at the fairgrounds. Ray is serving his second year as a RAM volunteer and Dawn her third, and both are latecomers compared to her parents, Donnie and Vivian Turner, also of Broadway, who have been Lions Club volunteers at RAM for all eight years.
"Up our way, we take things for granted," said Dawn. "People here are so appreciative of the opportunity to get some basic needs met. We left here last night, and people were out there waiting in tents. They are just very appreciative of this opportunity, and it means a lot to us to be a part of it."
"What it means to us is helping people who need help," said Ray. "You get a good feeling out of just helping people, even if it's as little a thing as sending them in the right direction."
Rex Livesay, 60, who resides near Rose Hill in Lee County, said he was hoping for eyeglasses he can't afford and wouldn't get if it wasn't for RAM and the Lions Club.
"Oh man, the way prices are for eggs and milk and just anything you buy these days is something else. I'm on disability, and it's hard. In this area there are a lot of people who have to live on what they draw, and it's not easy," he said. "I need eyeglasses bad. I need teeth, too, but over the last year my eyes got worse than I need teeth. Oh yeah, (RAM is) good for this area. Real good. People need them real bad, and here they are, and we're mighty thankful for it too. Mighty thankful."
Children can expect special treats at RAM besides stethoscopes and dental chairs. The Women's Cancer Advocacy Network out of Richmond provides classes to women on detecting breast, ovarian or cervical cancer. But WCAN also arrives at the fairgrounds loaded with delights like little stuffed animals, small toys, coloring books, children's books and just all manner of free gewgaws sure to entice and captivate the littlest RAM fan.
"We do crafts as well as giveaways," said WCAN's Karen Brantley. "This is our Make It & Take It children's tent. We can keep them occupied while their mothers and grandmothers take a class."
St. Mary's Health Wagon Director Teresa Gardner said the governor was disappointed his children couldn't experience RAM for themselves.
"He had his family on board and everything. He was looking forward to it. He expressed great disappointment they couldn't get here," she said.
Kaine has visited previous RAM events as a lieutenant governor, and last year his first as governor, and always expressed awe at what so many volunteers achieve during the span of a three-day weekend. Last year over $1.3 million worth of free medical and dental services was provided at the Wise County event from over 8,000 patient encounters.
Kaine's press office issued a release in which the governor expressed his disappointment as well as praise for the RAM Health Expedition.
"This is a great program that demonstrates the very best aspects of public-private partnership and social responsibility," the governor said. "I am sorry I was not able to visit this year, because I appreciate how significant the RAM clinic can be for the medical professionals and students who participate, and especially for the individuals who receive much-needed care."
RAM continues today and Sunday, with gates opening at 6 a.m. each day. The free services are intended for the working poor, the uninsured and/or the under-insured.