Clinics on wheels do healthy business

October 24, 2006|By JEAN MARBELLA

Sometimes, it's just heartburn, or an ear infection. At least once, though, it was a man having a heart attack.

When someone knocks on the door of one of the four Governor's Wellmobiles, you never quite know what, who or what kind of medical problem will walk in. Just about the only thing the health care providers like Bridgitte C. Gourley can count on is that these patients usually have no other place to go when they get sick.

"A lot of these folks would simply go without care," Gourley, a nurse practitioner, said yesterday in between seeing patients who dropped in at the Wellmobile parked off Crain Highway in Glen Burnie.

If it's Monday, that's where you'll find Gourley and driver and outreach worker David Rosario. On Tuesday afternoons, the Mexican women who pick crabs in the Hooper's Island processing plants know to find them in the parking lot of Old Salty's restaurant. Thursdays, they're back in Glen Burnie, at Harundale Mall. Other days, they're out and about on either side of the Bay Bridge, perhaps doing physicals at a middle school so that kids can be cleared for sports, or at a camp for migrant farm workers on the Eastern Shore.

That's how this particular Wellmobile, which has been in service since 1999, has racked up 80,000 miles on its odometer - and it wasn't even one of the two units that traveled last year to Brookhaven, Miss., 130 miles north of New Orleans, to help victims of Hurricane Katrina. There, with the area hospital out of commission because of hurricane damage, the Wellmobiles tended to 200 to 300 patients a day suffering from respiratory and other infections, hypertension, heat exhaustion and just general anxiety from the trauma.

On Thursday evening, the director of the Wellmobile, Rebecca Wiseman, will be honored as the University of Maryland, Baltimore's Public Servant of the Year. It's part of the campus' annual Founders Week celebration - Happy 199th Birthday, UMB! (Also receiving of-the-year awards at the Thursday gala, which raises scholarship money, are Larry Anderson, a longtime anatomy professor, Angela Brodie, a breast cancer researcher, and Alessio Fasano, whose research has produced a treatment for celiac disease and other autoimmune illnesses.)

Wiseman heads a staff of 16, all of whom, with the exception of herself and a part-time administrative assistant, are out in one of the 33-foot long mobile units, which travel to just about every corner of the state. And she frequently gets out there herself, to check in on the nurses, nurse practitioners, interns and translators who staff the mobile units, as well as the clinics, homeless shelters and other social service groups that the program works with.

Despite their mobility, the units develop a regular clientele, who know when and where to find them.

"We spend a lot of time with our folks," Wiseman said. "We're not like an urgent care center. We've seen some people for eight years."

On this particular day, Gourley and Rosario saw a couple of their regulars. One, a formerly homeless man and cardiac patient, stopped in just to chat and update them on his ongoing job search. Shortly after he left, the door to the trailer opened again, and Gourley greeted the woman.

"Need your blood pressure checked?"

"You know it."

It's free, no questions asked - well, except for the usual medical history and where-does-it-hurt type of questions that you get at any clinic. If you're an illegal alien, if you're homeless, if you don't have insurance, no problem.

"We don't ask," said Rosario, a former Army medical supplies supervisor who used the GI Bill to go to nursing school. "We just provide the service."

The program was started during William Donald Schaefer's administration, initially to give immunizations to children, and it has expanded over the years, along with the number of uninsured Marylanders. The cost of providing the care - the current annual budget is $1.3 million - is split between the state and private donations, such as a recent grant from the hospital system MedStar Health.

Rosario is particularly proud of one patient the unit was able to help: a woman whose crab-picking job left her with painful carpal tunnel syndrome. He and Gourley were able to get her surgery for the problem, and now the woman often accompanies sometimes hesitant co-workers to the Wellmobile - "We call her the bodyguard," Rosario says - where she'll demonstrate her wrist's restored mobility.

"It's never boring," Rosario says.

Indeed, sometimes people will see the sign "Governor's Wellmobile" and pop in, thinking the actual governor is inside.

jean. marbella@baltsun.com

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