Two years ago, while receiving treatment for a painful medical condition, Rhonda Sheldon lost her job in the medical field and, along with it, her health insurance coverage.
Despite her pain, Sheldon worked two part-time jobs in order to make ends meet, but was unable to afford medical care. Then, she learned about free health care at the Eagle’s Wing Free Clinic near her home in Muskego.
“When I walked in, I immediately felt relieved,” she said. “The nurses assessed me with the most sincere, knowledgeable expertise and kindest care. They spent much time with me to get me the medication, resources and information I needed to get me back up to par.”
Sheldon visited Eagle’s Wing two more times.
“Without this place, I would have had to spend an excessive amount of money for pain meds and doctor visits because I was laid off and uninsured,” she said.
Sheldon’s story is similar to thousands of others, as a growing number of Americans have come to dread the question, “What’s your insurance?”
Growing numbers of “free clinics” are opening to address their needs. The Eagle’s Wing Free Clinic recently
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Clinic hours: Thursdays
moved from Muskego and joined the Mukwonago Food Pantry Consortium at 225 Eagle Lake Ave., in the former Aurora Clinic building.
The 501(c) 3 non-profit clinic opened June 6, 2013 after Joanne Peterson, family practice nurse practitioner and member of St. Leonard Parish, approached Jennie Soika, then parish nurse at St. Leonard, in late winter 2010, with her vision to begin a free medical clinic in the area.
“The parish nurse position at St. Leonard was discontinued in May 2012, but I remain involved with the free clinic as the board president,” said Soika, adding, “This invitation went out to the surrounding churches and congregations, and with the response from others who agreed there was a need, it grew from there.”
A grassroots organization not affiliated with any medical group or health care system, Eagle’s Wing is supported solely through donations, grants and fundraisers.
“We have very little overhead at this time,” said Soika, a nurse with Waukesha Memorial Hospital Community Outreach. “We pay for rent and Internet service monthly, and pay for support services as needed, such as pharmaceuticals, laboratory and radiology.”
All board members, medical professionals and clinic staff volunteer their time to ensure local residents without private or public insurance, who meet income guidelines of less than 200 percent of the federal poverty level, are offered acute and chronic illness management and nursing assessment. They are also offered health education, blood pressure screening, referral and community resource information, limited pharmaceutical assistance and limited laboratory and radiology services.
The clinic is open every Thursday from 5 to 8 p.m. and staff sees approximately two to four patients each night, with some returning for follow-up care.
“Our plan is to become a primary or medical home for those who are uninsured or underinsured and in need of monitoring and support in managing chronic medical conditions such as asthma, diabetes, heart failure and hypertension,” said Soika. “We have some pharmaceuticals that we get through a consortium of other free clinics in the Milwaukee area, and a nominal amount of money to purchase some of the most used medications to give out. We also have some gift cards for Walmart so if a nurse practitioner writes a prescription that we don’t have, we can give out the gift card so the patient can get their medication.”
Answering a call
The all-volunteer staff includes a physician, two registered nurses, two nurse practitioners, clerical workers anda pharmacist. Soika considers her work at Eagle’s Wing her ministry.
“It is not just my faith, it is a calling,” she said. “My career always involved working with people as a parish nurse, and now as a community outreach nurse working with underserved and the underinsured.”
A family nurse practitioner for 40 years, Peterson works for Froedtert and the Medical College of Wisconsin Community Physicians in the walk-in clinics and FastCare. She has also worked in emergency room and primary care settings.
“I have also volunteered at three free health clinics in the community and have some understanding of the issues the uninsured face,” she said. “I live in Muskego and there are no free health clinics in the southeastern region of Waukesha. The closest clinics are in downtown Waukesha and Oconomowoc. There are so many people who fall through the cracks with health care, even in Waukesha County. Too many people are working minimum wage jobs that do not provide health insurance and even if they did, the cost would be prohibitive. Now with the Affordable Care Act starting, no one really knows how it will help this population.”
For Peterson, providing care for patients such as Sheldon and others who have no insurance is fulfilling the mission Jesus began when he healed the sick.
“We have the obligation to do what we can with God’s help to provide whatever health care we can to those in need,” she explained. “It is a great feeling that people of different Christian backgrounds can come together to help God’s people. I like the satisfaction of helping people regain their health and possibly prevent more serious health problems.”
The patients leave grateful for the medical assistance, and some, like Sheldon, return to volunteer at the clinic.
“I did get another job and then I wanted to be part of their caring team, so I now volunteer my time at Eagle’s Wing to help those in the same situation as me,” said Sheldon.
“I do secretarial work mostly and help retrieve information, supplies or anything the staff or nurses need. I feel great about volunteering and supporting the clinic to help others who are in need. I started volunteering a month after they opened and will be continuing now that they have moved to Mukwonago.”
According to data from the Waukesha County Census for June 2008, there are seven to 10 percent uninsured or 26,644 to 38,000 individuals without insurance. The number of individuals living below the federal poverty level has been increasing with an 8.1 percent increase from 2000 to 2010, explained Soika.
“In 2009, 2.7 percent of families were living below the poverty level and 4.1 percent of individuals were below the poverty level in Waukesha County,” she said. “Our target population is adults without insurance from ages 18-64. We see adults in the surrounding communities, targeting southeastern Waukesha County – an area not covered by the other two medical free clinics in Waukesha County.”
Eagle’s Wing aims to increase patient populations, provide a referral network for social services, offer a referral system for specialists, and provide a site for medical, nursing and other health care students.