Guadalupe Free Clinic marks decade of mercy, medical care

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A little after 8:30 a.m. May 21, 2005, the first patient stepped through the doors of the Guadalupe Free Clinic in Colonial Beach. She didn't know it at the time, but late-stage cancer filled her body.

"We knew something was wrong, but didn't know what," said her husband, Frank Anderson (his name has been changed due to privacy concerns). With no medical insurance and the closest free clinic about 65 miles away, they'd previously had nowhere to go for help.

Inside the modest yellow two-story building, his wife received a smile and welcome along with a diagnosis that led to life-saving surgery.

"They saved her," Anderson said. "We are beyond blessed to have this place."

Ten years later, the couple will celebrate a cancer-free decade and the anniversary of the volunteer-run clinic that gave them their most precious gift.

'The little engine that could'

The Guadalupe Free Clinic, which operates on the grounds of St. Elizabeth of Hungary Church, was founded by Father Jerome A. Magat, then parochial vicar, to serve the working poor and uninsured in Colonial Beach and Westmoreland County.

The Department of Health and Human Services has designated Westmoreland County as a medically underserved area since 1978. It is also a health professional shortage area, with only 11 health care providers per 100,000 people. The nearest free clinic is either 90 minutes south in Kilmarnock or an hour north in Fredericksburg, and the poor often don't have reliable transportation.

"The people we are seeing are Christ's poor," said Greg Dilick, executive director of the clinic. "Jesus said, 'The poor will always be with you.' Well these poor are with us and don't have other medical alternatives. Here we offer corporal works of mercy."

With the encouragement of Father Thomas P. Vander Woude, then pastor, and the help of the Santa Maria Knights of Columbus from Vienna and Holy Trinity Knights from Colonial Beach and King George County, a 90-year-old building just steps from the church was transformed into a medical clinic in less than 11 months.

"There was a lot of providence involved," said Father Magat, who continues to serve as the nonprofit's president and as primary fundraiser while on the faculty of St. Patrick Seminary in Menlo Park, Calif.

In 2005, the clinic had 23 patients; last year it had 297. Over the past decade, around 1,200 people have received services worth $8.5 million, according to Dilick.

"If I look at how we started, if I look at our business model … well, my business friends laugh at it," said Father Magat, who worked for Booz Allen Hamilton before entering the seminary. "But I always call the clinic 'the little engine that could.' Catholic charity does not always work in traditional ways. But if God wants it to happen it will."

Father Magat added that he promised Mary he would open the clinic in a Marian month and is convinced "it's been Our Lady's project from the start."

Volunteers who walk the walk

On a recent Saturday afternoon, the Guadalupe Free Clinic was filled with patients and activity. Jackie Dilick, Greg's wife, runs the administrative side of the office and seemed to be everywhere at once - always with a smile.

The clinic is open Saturdays from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. for free medical care and Wednesday afternoons for patient referrals, eligibility screenings and medication refills.

The building is a cozy space with 14-16 volunteers staffing two examination rooms, a pharmacy, waiting room and office and assisting around 52 patients a week. The clinic is about 95 percent volunteer-run and includes a physician, nurse, pharmacist, medical technician and assistant medical director. There also are bilingual interpreters, receptionists and eligibility screeners.

"The volunteers are a real team," said Father Magat. "It's rarely the same group assembled every Saturday, but people who are complete strangers but believe in a common cause quickly become best friends. For the next five hours they work their tails off to help people."

Arlington Bishop Paul S. Loverde commended the volunteers in a statement. "I am proud of the outstanding service provided by the Guadalupe Free Clinic to our brothers and sisters in need of medical evaluation, medication and support," he said. "Christ Himself is present in each of them, hidden beneath illness and failing health. Congratulations to the faithful staff, supportive board of directors and generous benefactors of the Guadalupe Free Clinic."

Father Magat said some volunteers have served for years, with many spending a large portion of their Saturday driving to the clinic.

Lance Carrington and his wife, Rosario, come from Stafford, about an hour and a half drive. Rosario is an interpreter, and Lance serves as an eligibility screener.

Lance, a retired federal agent, said the work is "incredibly rewarding, and over the years the patients become friends."

About 40 percent of patients are Caucasian, 17 percent African-American and a little more than 40 percent Hispanic. Most patients are between 36 and 64 years old.

A number of clients are seasonal migrant workers who come to the area from Mexico each summer. While many have work visas, staff does not ask if they are documented.

"I don't think Christ would ask the question, and we don't ask the question," said Dilick.

Patients regularly come with common ailments like colds or the flu, but nearly half also have chronic issues, such as hypertension and diabetes.

Each week the pharmacy fills about 150 prescriptions, primarily for high blood pressure, diabetes and gout. It also stocks pain medication.

For some of the more expensive drugs, the clinic helps clients obtain free medication through pharmaceutical companies' patient assistance programs.

If clients need specialized treatment, including dental care, the clinic has partnerships with a number of doctors who will see patients free of charge. They also work with Catholic Charities' Family Services in Fredericksburg to address mental health needs.

Volunteer Dan Freeman, a physicist at Dahlgren Naval Support Facility who is considering a medical profession, said the clinic "is a great place to learn."

"They do all varieties of service, from direct patient care to pharmacy to referrals."

Freeman said he's been impressed by how organized and efficient the organization is.

"It was startling when I first got here how much was accomplished in such a small space," he said.

The donor- and grant-supported clinic is indeed efficient: For every dollar donated the clinic provides $11 dollars' worth of free health care.

Along with medical service, there's an evangelizing element as well.

"Because all the work goes on upon the grounds of St. Elizabeth, people associate the work with the church," said Father Magat, adding that the clinic exemplifies mercy - a major theme in Pope Francis' papacy.

Dedication, along with mercy and love, drive the volunteers who keep the clinic humming each week. Not willing to turn away walk-ins, the medical team may stay well past the 2 p.m. closing, sometimes treating patients until after 7 p.m.

"What makes this excellent is the sprit, the soul of this place," said Anderson, who after a decade still frequently drops by the clinic with his wife to offer thanks. "Everybody talks the talk, but very few people walk the walk. These people walk the walk - every last one of them."

How to help

Mail donations to the Guadalupe Free Clinic, P.O. Box 275, Colonial Beach, VA 22443 or email Greg Dilick. A golf tournament fundraiser for the clinic will be held Aug. 3 at Augustine Golf Club, 76 Monument Drive, Stafford. Registration is at 8 a.m., shotgun start at 10 a.m. To register go here.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2015