Celebrating Unsung Heroes
by Nat Frothingham
The recently activated federal Affordable Care Act, commonly known as Obamacare, has had the clear result of increasing the number of Vermonters who are covered by health insurance. Health care reformers would probably call this an improvement. But while Obamacare has addressed the U.S. health care problem and is offering health insurance to more people, it still doesn’t completely solve the problem because critical gaps in health care coverage remain.
The People’s Health & Wellness Clinic in Barre is a free clinic that’s been in place for 22 years. Talking about the clinic, its executive director, Peter Youngbaer, said, “We are a gap-filler for people without insurance, without the means to self-pay.”
And these people — who are they?
Well, if you’re unemployed or homeless and you need medical help, you might not be able to pay. If you have a health insurance plan with a $5,000 deductible, you have to pay for your health care until that $5,000 has been spent. Only when that deductible has been met does the health insurance kick in. Or you might be a recent immigrant to the United States. You might not speak English. You might need money to pay for medical help, and you might also need a translator.
Youngbaer’s description of the clinic as well as the clinic’s 2014 Annual Report tell a pretty impressive story.
The clinic offers a range of services that include primary health care, mental health care, oral (dental) health care and a “navigator” service that links clients to Vermont Health Connect. In 2014, these free services attracted 726 unduplicated client visits at a total budget of just under $300,000 per year.
Part of that $300,000 budget supports five paid (full and part-time) staff members. But what’s impressive is that $300,000 budget leverages more than 100 volunteer clinicians such as doctors, nurse-practitioners, nurses, mental health counselors and psychiatrists, nutritionists, bodyworkers and the like. Their work is donated. They don’t get paid. And yet their value according to the 2014 Annual Report was $136,845. And the donated value of pharmaceuticals and medical supplies came in at $118,617.
What would happen if there was no Health & Wellness Clinic? Well, the people getting help wouldn’t get help. Their health would deteriorate. And eventually they would become a burden and a cost to existing health care providers and hospitals. And the cost of their care would be passed along to the health care costs and premiums of people who do have insurance.
When the People’s Health & Wellness Clinic was founded some 22 years ago, it was modeled on the Berkeley Free Clinic in Berkeley, California. Like the Berkeley Free Clinic, the People’s Health & Wellness Clinic relies on donations and offers its services at no charge to its clients.
Speaking to the clinic’s overall mission, Youngbaer said, “We can get them well — get them well and keep them well.”
Please note that the People’s Health & Wellness Clinic will be holding a fundraising event to benefit the clinic featuring the Vermont Comedy Divas at Montpelier City Hall’s upstairs performance space on Saturday evening, March 5, 2016.
Anyone who wants to contact the People’s Health & Wellness Clinic should phone the main number at 479-1229 or visit the clinic’s website at phwcvt.org.
When he was asked for the name of someone at the People’s Health & Wellness Clinic whose service is consistently exemplary, executive director Peter Youngbaer mentioned Cecile Gendron.
“Cecile is terrific here,” Youngbaer said. “She comes in more than any other nurse. She sees the whole clinic. She knows the patients. She knows how they are doing.”
What’s more, when there was a need for someone at the clinic to fill in for the paid nurse manager, it was Cecile who stepped in and helped.
In a recent phone conversation with Gendron, she quickly described herself as an experienced nurse. “Oh yes. Definitely,” she said. “I’m a seasoned nurse. I have a lot of experience. Yes, that’s right.”
Gendron was born and raised in Montpelier and in 1967 was a member of the final graduating class at St. Michael’s High School here.
After high school, she studied nursing at St. Vincent’s School of Nursing in Worcester, Massachusetts, and graduated from Yale-New Haven Hospital. Yale-New Haven is the teaching hospital for Yale University. From Yale-New Haven she went to what she called, “the old Mary Hitchcock Hospital in Hanover, New Hampshire.”
At Hanover, she found herself working in the “rudimentary days of doing open heart surgery.” She took a special course at Mary Hitchcock to prepare for this new work. “When the patients came out of surgery, I was there. Back then they came directly to the intensive care unit room. They didn’t go to the recovery area.”
Gendron was at Mary Hitchcock for two years. When she had an illness of her own, she returned to her parents’ home in Montpelier. In September 1975, when she was able to work again, she started at Central Vermont Hospital and was a nurse there for 35 years.
“My whole career was oriented around staying up-to-date,” Gendron said.
She was a certified critical care nurse and a certified post-anesthesia care nurse. Gendron said she found Central Vermont Hospital “challenging.”
“I did charge nurse duty on a medical-surgical floor,” she said. “I did that nights and evenings.” As she explained it, you might have registered nurses on the floor or licensed practical nurses (LPNs.) “You have to make assignments according to people’s skills and you are in charge.”
In talking with Cecile Gendron, it was easy to imagine the range of her nursing service over her 35-year career. She knew what it was like to work in the intensive care unit or a recovery room or during nights and evenings in charge of the med-surg floor. Later in her career she worked with postoperative patients to make sure they had everything they needed and knew everything they needed to know to take care of themselves when they went home.
When she retired from full-time nursing work at Central Vermont Hospital in 2010, she wanted to keep her nursing license. To do that you have to log in a certain number of hours nursing, and the People’s Health & Wellness Clinic was close to perfect for that purpose.
Talking about her work at the clinic, she said, “I work at least 12 hours a month. When we work as volunteer nurses there are no paid positions. Typically, you go for two or three hours at a time.” Patients are scheduled to meet with a doctor or a nurse-practitioner when these professionals are available.
When she left full-time nursing at Central Vermont Hospital, she wondered if she would like volunteering at the clinic. But there was nothing to worry about. “I love it,” she said declaratively. “It’s a whole new challenge. You have a range of opportunities that you never had before. You work with people who are under-insured. Sometimes they are homeless. Sometimes they have good jobs but have high deductibles and they don’t have money to pay for medical treatment.”
Gendron showed no interest in making harsh judgments about the people who show up at the clinic and need medical help. “I’m very passionate about this place,” she said. “Those who want to be helped — we have a place for them to come. I think there are a lot of people out there who go without health care or they don’t have the money. Some people have a misperception about us. We’re not an emergency room,” she said. “We don’t fix busted fingers. We’re here to help people on an ongoing basis. If a patient needs 45 minutes, they are going to get it. We’re probably a lot more personable with our clients than a regular doctor’s office.” Sometimes, Gendron said, there are people who need medical help but they don’t know how to advocate for themselves.