The Rhode Island Free Clinic marks 15 years.
Fifteen years ago, internist Caroline Troise, MD, began her first shift as a volunteer at a new Providence clinic whose aim was to provide free primary care for any uninsured Rhode Islanders who came to its door.
“I’ll never forget the first night I walked into the clinic,” recalls Troise, clinical assistant professor of medicine. “There were people in folding chairs, lined up against the wall. … We were able to perform physical exams and order basic blood work, but were limited in prescribing medications and ordering more sophisticated testing.”
In 1999, the Rhode Island Free Clinic took its first patients in a 500-square-foot donated office on Broad Street, reliant on medical equipment cobbled from gifts and a tiny startup budget, a fickle stock of pharmaceutical samples, and volunteer time—lots of volunteer time.
The clinic was the vision of Stephanie Chafee, BSN, now the state’s first lady; and Bruce Becker, MPH ’78 MD’81, professor of emergency medicine. They believed everyone, regardless of income or insurance, should have access to health care.
From that “storefront operation,” says CEO Marie Ghazal, RN, the clinic has grown to a modern, fully equipped outpatient facility with a $1 million budget and more than 700 volunteers, serving more than 2,000 uninsured, low-income adults.
“We’re a primary care home, open 50 hours a week. We really try to provide all services the patient needs,” Ghazal says. “There are community health centers to serve the uninsured, but usually with sliding scales; they’re not free. We’re a safety net for a safety net.”
Alpert Medical School has retained a close relationship with the clinic since its founding. Herbert Rakatansky, MD, clinical professor emeritus of medicine, a volunteer gastroenterologist, and a clinic board member, says it’s a natural extension of Brown’s mission.
“Brown has always had a commitment to underserved populations, but in other countries,” Rakatansky says. “But people need help here, too. You don’t have to go to Kenya. Now Brown does both.”
“A spirit of aid pervades the Medical School,” agrees Geoffrey McCrossan MD’17, a member of the Brown Student Community Clinic, which two nights a month offers students supervised, hands-on clinical experience. “We help underserved populations here in Rhode Island, and we help new students find a ‘home.’ Right away they can give back.”
Allied health students from other local schools also volunteer and train at the free clinic; many stay on after graduation, to share their experience and expertise with today’s students. Such lasting relationships will be the centerpiece of the clinic’s 15th anniversary celebration this fall.
“We’re celebrating the clinic’s success story and promising future with the volunteers who have made it possible,” Director of Development Julia Karahalis says. She hopes the October 22 event can be a “mini reunion” for past and present Brown volunteers, two days before Medical Family Weekend.
Judy Diaz, RN, MPH, who was the clinic’s first nurse clinic coordinator and now serves on the board, says Brown medical alumni deserve special kudos. “We didn’t really have a staff [at first]—it was the director and myself,” she recalls. “Yet when I looked around I saw Brown med students saying, what do you need? what can I do?”
“They were the foundation that helped the clinic go in the beginning. It does take a village.”
The 15th anniversary celebration will take place 6-8 p.m., October 22, at the Providence Biltmore. For information and to buy tickets, visit rifreeclinic.org.