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'They Save Lives. They Save Families.' Free Clinic Keeps D.C. Family Afloat

HuffPost   First Posted: 08/11/10 03:14 PM ET Updated: 05/25/11 04:00 PM ET

This story is part of HuffPost Impact's 12 Days, 12 Cities, 12 Families series, highlighting Americans who have persevered to overcome incredible challenges and the nonprofits that helped change their lives. Check back tomorrow for the continuation of this series.

"They had to take me out with the jaws of life. I was pinned in the car. I had broken a couple of bones in my leg and my hand." Ron Harris was in a car accident in 2005. A trip to the hospital was the last thing he needed, already having been diagnosed with diabetes in 2000. Though he had health insurance at the time, his injuries forced him to leave his job as a security officer, and his health coverage soon ended.

"I was in the hospital -- but when I came out I didn't know where else to turn to," Ron said. "It was so hard to get help, so I looked and found the Arlington Free Clinic."

12 Cities

A Second Family

When Ron went to the free clinic, they treated him not only for his diabetes and his lingering injuries from the car accident, they also discovered that he had a kidney illness.

"As soon as I got there, they helped me the same day. That was a blessing for me, since I was so far into medical bills."

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Ron and Zenaida Harris, with their daughter, Jennie Vibar, and two grandchildren.

The free clinic has become a sign of hope for a family for whom health issues are abundant. Ron's wife Zenaida has early stage diabetes, asthma and hypertension. She gets care through the free clinic, which allows her the time and energy to work two part time jobs. Their 29-year-old daughter, Jennie Vibar, can only work part time as well, as she has two children and suffers from seizures.

All five people live in a two-bedroom apartment, and it's still difficult for them to get by, though the Arlington Free Clinic has lifted a huge weight off of their shoulders. During some of the worst times, before they became patients at the Clinic, they had so little money that Zenaida skipped her hypertension medication so that Ron could get his insulin. The retail value of the medication AFC provides to Ron, Zenaida and Jennie totals over $20,000 every year.

"We couldn't afford our medicine -- three to four hundred dollars a month [for each of us]. It was impossible," Ron said of the times before they became patients of the Arlington Free Clinic. "My hopes always stay up because of my family, my wife, my daughter and my grandkids. Some people are so lonely. They lose hope and they lose the battle. But me, I have family, I have friends, and the nurses at the free clinic."

Ron refers to his two favorite nurses, Marlee and Carolyn, as his angels. They still continue to visit him even on their days off.

"The people there -- from the receptionist, the person that screens you, the doctor -- there's a unity. Now it's like a second family to me."

Walking Into A Smile

The Arlington Free Clinic provides comprehensive health care to low-income, uninsured families. In the financial year 2009, the clinic's 560 volunteers provided over 9,500 patient visits, care valued at over $5 million.

Executive Director Nancy Pallesen told me that raising enough money to run the clinic isn't always easy. "We have a $2 million cash budget a year. Beyond that we have a lot of in-kind services -- another 2.5 million. Volunteer time, the doctors and nurses, the diagnostic tests that come from the hospital. And we don't have any federal money, no county support."

Over the past years, the Arlington Free Clinic has provided medical care to Ron, his wife, and his daughter -- care they otherwise would have had to go without. They've even recommended the clinic to other families in need. Several of these families were authorized to get health care through the clinic as well.

Ron knows how good it can feel to have the burden of medical bills lifted. He described to me his reaction to receiving medication for free from the Clinic's on-site pharmacy: "I said, 'You're kidding me! I don't have to go to a pharmacy and pay for it?'"

Ron credits the clinic with a lot more, however, than just free medication.

"If it wasn't for the clinic, I don't know where my marriage would be, I don't know where my daughter would be," he said. "It's unbelievable. You have to be there to see the experience. You walk into a smile. I can be sad right now and walk there and I see a smile. I think a smile is more medicine than anything in the world."

"They do more than save lives. They save families."

You can also give to the National Association of Free Clinics, which advocates for 1,200 free clinics nationwide.

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