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'It was a calling'

With God at the center of everything it does, Christ Clinic fills a hole in the medical system

'It was a calling'

(James Allen Walker for WORLD)

SPOKANE, Wash.-The Bibles sit on a shelf near the front door of the Christ Clinic waiting room. It's a pleasant space, with floor-to-ceiling windows letting in the morning light, four rows of comfy chairs for patients, and a freshly vacuumed carpet. But it's the Bibles that tell you that you aren't in a normal doctor's office: Displayed at eye level, with versions in English, Spanish, Chinese, Vietnamese, Khmer, and Russian, the Bibles are a symbol of Christ Clinic's approach to its mission of providing affordable medical care to the un- or underinsured: God is always at the center.

This is Christ Clinic's new facility, and it still excites the employees and volunteers who staff its front counter and back offices. After a lengthy fundraising campaign, they finally moved out of their old, 1,300-square-foot office tacked onto the back of a local church. Just in time, too: The economic recession has provided them with more patients than even their six gleaming new exam rooms can handle, and then some. Christ Clinic is treating 300 to 500 patients a month, and there is a six-month waiting list for new patients.

"God knew what He was doing," Clinic Director Danielle Riggs said about the timing.

The need may be more pressing now, but it's always been there. Four doctors founded Christ Clinic in 1991 to fill in a hole in the American healthcare system. When people without insurance get sick, they often have few options. Unable to afford a doctor's visit, they may wait until the condition gets severe enough to warrant a trip to the emergency room, where they face long waits and then outsized medical bills (often passed on to the state). Christ Clinic offers these patients an alternative: They can get primary care on a sliding fee structure, with a doctor's visit often costing less than $20. Their symptoms can be diagnosed, and the proper treatment prescribed, all before a problem becomes more serious.

"Christ Clinic was designed for the uninsured," Riggs said. "A lot of these people are working two full-time jobs to make ends meet. They don't have a parachute, any protection if something happens."

Riggs, a licensed nurse practitioner, serves as both clinic director and its only full-time provider. She is a small, unassuming woman, with tightly cropped gray hair, but she knows people (within five minutes of general conversation, she has correctly guessed my age, income, insurance status, and the infrequency of my own doctor's visits). She sees the bulk of the clinic's patients and consequently, the damage that the uninsured's limited access to primary care causes. She spoke of how some patients with urinary tract infections, a very treatable condition, "just delay, delay, and delay, and then they can develop pyelonephritis [a septic infection of the kidneys], which is very serious."

Bruno de Leeuw owes his life to the doctors at Christ Clinic. A retired missionary who served for 21 years in Papua New Guinea, de Leeuw has cancer. Diagnosed at Christ Clinic in the fall of 1996, he has come here for treatment ever since and returned recently with his wife Marlys for a bimonthly checkup. Without the low-cost primary care available from Christ Clinic, his condition might not have been discovered until it was too late. When asked about the clinic, de Leeuw's response was brief: "Praise the Lord."

Over 14 years Marlys de Leeuw has gotten friendly with many staff members, and she now exhibits an impressive knowledge of their families, their children, and their romantic lives. A registered nurse who worked with her husband in the missions, she recognizes the true motivation behind Christ Clinic workers: "They're so like Jesus. Jesus doesn't care what social status we are, or what age we are. He loves us anyway."

Christ Clinic's patients-most are not Christians-receive personal care. "We feel we can demonstrate God's love to people," Riggs said. "People know that here it feels peaceful and calm, and they'll be treated with respect and love, which is not always the case elsewhere. For us, our patients are not just physical beings, but have emotional, spiritual, sentient needs."

At the end of a visit, Riggs frequently asks patients if they will pray with her. She'll often use the information gathered during a patient's intake to pray for specific needs in the patient's life, sharing the gospel while building bonds with the patients: "When our patients have a relationship with us, they feel a lot safer. That is way different for a lot of them."

Dr. Franklin Browne is one of the volunteer practitioners whose donated time enables Christ Clinic to see as many patients as it does. He also serves on the clinic's board of directors. Browne said the opportunity to blend medical and spiritual care first led him to offer his services to the clinic: "For me it was a calling, it was the first time I ever felt something like that. Every Sunday at prayer Christ Clinic would come into my heart."

Browne, recently retired from a busy practice, was looking for an opportunity to serve his community while keeping his medical skills intact. He emphasizes that "the medicine we practice here is every bit as good" as that his private practice provided, and he enjoys his volunteer work: "It's really fun to practice medicine when you don't have to worry about getting paid."

To provide quality care while keeping costs low, Christ Clinic has tapped into a network of resources. A local medical imaging company provides X-rays, MRIs, CAT scans, and other imaging to clinic patients for the same sliding scale fees the clinic charges. Pharmaceutical companies provide free medications for their qualifying patients. Local specialists have volunteered to take a certain number of pro-bono patients each month with the goal of ensuring that all patients receive care, no matter how complicated their condition.

Christ Clinic survives entirely on donations and the tiny fees it charges for its services. It relies heavily on volunteer help, and even its permanent staffers are paid less than what they could get from commercial concerns. Nonetheless, the clinic has been ahead of its time in many ways: It has long supported preventive care, with a dietician and medical and emotional counseling available to patients.

Christ Clinic is currently experiencing growing pains. The move to the larger facility has expanded its patient load and overhead. The entire healthcare industry is undergoing potentially seismic shifts in the way it does business. But Riggs states that Christ Clinic's mission will remain the same: "People come into a medical office, and they feel very hopeless. We want to share hope.

Click here to listen to WORLD editor in chief Marvin Olasky discuss with Alisa Harris the West regional finalists.

To view a video profile of Christ Clinic and of each of the other 2010 regional finalists and to read profiles of finalists and winners from 2006 through 2009, visit WORLDmag.com/compassion.

Christ Clinic Factbox

Location: Spokane, Wa.

Founded: 1991

Mission: Christ-based medical care to uninsured

Size: Total number of patients treated: 7,000

Annual Budget: $500,000

Website: www.christclinic.org

Daniel Olasky

Daniel Olasky