When she lived in Florida, Gladys Guzman didn’t worry much about meeting her healthcare needs, as her job helped her afford insurance with little trouble.
However, when her mother fell ill and relocated from Puerto Rico to Wilkes-Barre, Guzman said she moved from Fort Lauderdale in 2009 to be with her
The change came as a shock: “I had never seen snow in my life,” the 62-year old laughed.
But climate wasn’t the only change.
She said she took a job at the now-defunct Ramada Hotel on Public Square and, working for minimum wage, could no longer afford health insurance — until a friend told her about a free clinic, healthcare, for Guzman, was simply not an option.
Today, she is just one of thousands of patients treated at Volunteers in Medicine. The clinic, located at 190 N. Pennsylvania Ave., Wilkes-Barre, provides an extensive list of free medical services to qualifying patients, including primary and preventative care, as well as a number of specialized services.
Guzman said she’s nearly run the gamut, visiting a number of doctors and practitioners who volunteer at the site, and doesn’t have a bad word to say.
“I can’t complain with these people,” she said. “They cover everything, everything, everything!”
And it doesn’t seem the doctors can complain about Guzman either.
“Gladys is great,” said Dr. Richard Grossman. “She’s a little fireball. We’ve really changed her life around, I think.”
A general dentist with a practice in Kingston, Grossman treats patients “just about” every Friday at VIM.
“We serve the hard-working people trying to keep their heads above the poverty line,” he said, adding, “There’s a huge a need.”
He treats individuals at the clinic from a variety of backgrounds, he said — some of whom had good-paying jobs but lost them, parents who for years put their children’s care first at the expense of their own, non-English speaking immigrants whose children interpret for them — but he said a common trait among his patients is the gratitude so many express.
“I can’t tell you how many people get out of the chair and shake my hand,” something he said doesn’t always happen in his own office.
Many of his patients at VIM, he added, have waited for years for procedures they were unable to afford. He fitted a denture for one woman, he said, who, on a later visit showed him pictures from her wedding showcasing the smile he helped to reassemble.
Such stories, he said, provide him with a sense of accomplishment that makes volunteering at the clinic something he looks forward to.
But Grossman, a lifelong Kingston resident — he said he attended school in Washington D.C., but couldn’t take the traffic — is just one of a group of doctors at VIM, and despite the work they do and the thousands of patients they treat, he said it isn’t enough.
“We’re busy. We have more than we can handle,” he said. “We could use a lot more dentists to volunteer, that’s for sure.”
Besides healthcare practitioners, Volunteers in Medicine also enlists the services of volunteers in a number of other positions.
150 core volunteers
According to Executive Director Kelly Ranieli, roughly 150 “core volunteers” offer their time and expertise to keep the clinic running, and only five paid positions (four full-time; one part-time) exist within the nonprofit.
“I can do the dentistry,” Grossman said, but the work of other volunteers makes the healthcare process “seamless.”
“They work harder than I do,” he said.
Ranieli confirmed the need for dental volunteers, and said other areas lack personnel as well. Currently, she said outstanding needs exist in nursing, podiatry, chiropractic, physical therapy, social work and psychology.
Needs for office and paper supplies, she said, are ever-present, as well as the need for medical and dental supplies, and small gifts have a tremendous impact.
“It is amazing how much something as simple as 200 pens donated from a company will help a nonprofit like VIM,” she said via email.
Some of the clinic’s other material needs, she said, include waiting room furniture, a board room table and a refrigerator.
Presently, only 15 percent of VIM’s funding comes from donations, Ranieli said. Money from fundraising events, like the upcoming Havana Nights-themed Music, Memories and Medicine Gala, makes-up another 15, and grants comprise the remaining 70 percent.
“We have a community with a lot of resources, so we are usually able to meet patients’ needs,” said Dr. Kathleen Hirthler, a nurse practitioner and Assistant Medical Director at VIM.
Hirthler, of Shavertown, works full time as an assistant professor of nursing at Wilkes University. On Wednesdays, she volunteers at the clinic, focusing in adult healthcare and chronic disease management.
She said giving her time at VIM is all about access, as she believes quality medical attention should be available to anyone who needs it.
The commitment of the volunteers and the impact the work they do, she said, keeps her going back.
“It’s just a very positive environment,” she said. “‘Good’ doesn’t sound like a strong enough word.”
Beacon of hope
For Gladys Guzman, the clinic shines as a beacon of light.
She has been unemployed since the Ramada on Public Square closed, she said, and since she still meets the requirements at VIM, she is still able to receive the almost-entirely-free care she needs.
“I only pay very, very little,” Guzman said. Sometimes medications not fully covered, like those for her diabetes, will cost her “maybe $5 or $10.”
Since her mother passed, she said she lives by herself in an apartment in Wilkes-Barre, and doesn’t have any children, “just two little beautiful cats, Valentina and Macarena.”
“If I don’t have that place,” Guzman said of VIM, “I don’t know what I’m going to do.”