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VOL. 42 | NO. 51 | Friday, December 21, 2018

Wanted: 1 doctor. 'Tired' doctor searches for successors

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DEER LODGE (AP) — A little after 10 a.m. a recent Friday, Dr. Tom Kim affectionately smacked a side door of the Abner Ross Memorial Building in Deer Lodge, Tennessee.

"Bye, bye, honey," he said, locking it for the last time.

It's been five years and eight months since Kim, founder of the 25-year-old Free Medical Clinic of America on Chapman Highway that provides care to the working poor, opened a clinic in the unincorporated Morgan County community, where fewer than 1,500 people live.

He went to the remote area primarily to provide preventive care: to make sure people who didn't have access to regular medical care were diagnosed with and could manage their diabetes, their high blood pressure, their thyroid disease. He kept their colds and upper respiratory infections in check, ensuring they missed as little work as possible. He treated their wounds, stopping infection before it spread.

"Just about any acute or chronic condition, is what we saw," said registered nurse Janet Masters, who drove from Fentress County every Friday to volunteer at the clinic.

Along with Kim and secretary Linda Scott, in a couple of spare cinder-block rooms with older donated medical equipment and furniture, framed prints of mountain scenes and First Corinthians 13, and a constantly running dehumidifier, she provided "services to uninsured and underinsured patients who don't have the means to get these services."

"You can see we just make do," she said, "but it's worked."

Over five years, about 150 people came through the doors, including multiple generations of the same families — the clinic would see anyone 18 or older, Masters said. Some, too proud to accept "free" care, paid Kim with produce they grew, or food they canned, or items they made by hand.

And Kim will miss them, and worry about them, he said, "but I'm getting tired." Weeks away from his 74th birthday, he's decided he physically can work only at his original South Knoxville clinic, hoping other volunteer medical doctors will appear to take the helm there before he retires completely.

Deer Lodge was Kim's fifth clinic. Two earlier clinics — one in Oneida and another in Oak Ridge — now operate independent of him, others taking over as he'd hoped. On Dec. 5, failing so far to find another doctor willing to practice at his weekly Wednesday clinic in the rural Anderson County coal town of Briceville, he closed it. Patients crowded into the small clinic for farewells.

"It was sad — 18 years is a long time," Kim said. "We were hugging and kissing, and they had coffee and cookies."

Deer Lodge was a quieter closing, with a single patient coming in. By 9:30 a.m., Kim was packing boxes.

He'd already announced the clinic would be closing, and an article had run in the local paper. Six months ago, he dropped from a weekly clinic to a monthly, by necessity; the hour-and-a-half one-way drive from his home to Deer Lodge, though scenic, left him so drained he sometimes had to stop and nap in his car before finishing the trip back to Knoxville.

Kim's Deer Lodge patients could still see him at his Knoxville clinic, but few will, he expects, because of the distance. Even the closest medical clinic now, in Wartburg, is a minimum half-hour drive on winding roads for most of them.

For elderly patients, or Deer Lodge's horse-and-buggy Amish community of about 30 families, "who don't travel much," that might be insurmountable, Masters said.

"We referred one lady to the clinic in Wartburg, and she said, 'I don't even have the money to buy the gas to go there,'" she said. "No doubt, some people will go without" medical care.

Crystal Tompkins, director of the Morgan-Scott Project, wants to avoid that. The 46-year-old nonprofit, which partnered with Kim to operate the Deer Lodge clinic, is "actively trying to keep the clinic open," Tompkins said, talking with doctors in nearby counties who might be willing to come to the rural brick building one day a week to provide primary care.

The Morgan-Scott Project serves people in both poverty-stricken counties, and other counties as well, Tompkins said. In Morgan County, more than 20 percent of residents live below the federal poverty level; in Scott County, nearly 23 percent do. Just more than half have internet at home; fewer than 10 percent have college degrees. Eleven percent lack any medical insurance. Up to 20 percent are disabled.

The nonprofit's full name is the "the Morgan-Scott Project for Cooperative Christian Concerns," and it's heavily supported by area churches, including many in Anderson and Knox counties. Lacking a base of large-sum independent donors or state or federal funding, it's gotten creative with the ways it fulfills its motto, "Helping People Help Themselves."

Every Friday, folks line up for bread and produce; a rotation of volunteers from area churches meet the Second Harvest truck and drive the "rescued" perishable food to Deer Lodge. In the fall, the nonprofit provides backpacks of school supplies for thousands of children; at Christmas, toys and other gifts. There's a canned food program and a closet of personal hygiene items for needy families.

In the spring, volunteers plant a large community garden, and the nonprofit also gives seeds and plants to local families. To those who are attending college or training for vocational careers, it will pay for testing and certification fees, books and other supplies, from cosmetology wigs to welding helmets.

In the summers, it hosts teams on mission trips who stay in two "bunk rooms" at the nonprofit's modest headquarters and complete repair projects in the community. Twice a year, it hosts Remote Area Medical, which does two-day volunteer-driven vision and dental clinics.

And then there's the thrift store. Open only three days a week, it's a community event, Tompkins said, with people already lined up outside when it opens. In addition to being a primary source of income to support the other programs — it earns thousands of dollars a month — it also provides a place for customers who come "because this is all they can afford," Tompkins said.

Many of them are too proud to take a "handout," she said, so the store prices items affordably: $1 for packages of adult diapers, for example; 25 cents each for certain pieces of clothing on certain days. Just before Christmas will be a toy sale so seniors on fixed incomes can buy gifts for their grandchildren.

"We couldn't survive without our volunteers and our donations," she said. "That's the backbone of our mission."

The loss of the medical clinic is a blow to the small community, Tompkins said, but she has faith other doctors will step up and continue the clinic's mission. She's already talked to another nonprofit that seems willing to send volunteers.

Kim, even as he looks for a successor to his main legacy, hasn't given up hope for either Deer Lodge or Briceville.

"We have everything" needed for a clinic in each place, Kim said. "All we need is one doctor. One doctor."


Information from: Knoxville News Sentinel, http://www.knoxnews.com

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