While millions have taken advantage of the Affordable Care Act to procure health insurance, Florida’s decision not to expand Medicare leaves nearly half a million residents in a “coverage gap.” And that gap can find poorer families skipping basic medical, dental and vision care exclusively due to costs.
But there is hope, and it’s coming to Ocala at the end of July. Those who find themselves unable to afford basic care can get those needs met at the FreeD.O.M. Clinic at the Southeastern Livestock Pavilion on July 28 and 29.
The FreeD.O.M. Clinic is the brainchild of the husband-and-wife team of Ann Burnett and Dr. Don Bovell. Although FreeD.O.M. is in just its second year providing free health care in Ocala, its parent organization, United Hands, has offered free health care worldwide since 1995.
For the FreeD.O.M. Clinic’s 2015 Ocala debut, more than 800 medical and general volunteers provided more than a million dollars of care to the community and served more than 3,000 patients over five days.
“It’s just wonderful to see everybody come together when there’s a need and help those in need,” Ocala Mayor Kent Guinn said at last year’s clinic.
Patients came away pleased, at times even being reduced to tears by the kindness and care they were shown.
“They’re doing a great job here. They’re giving back to the community,” patient Velma Dilwort told Gainesville.com. “I’m very grateful.”
This year, the FreeD.O.M. Clinic runs for just two days but will have visits scheduled at the Southeastern Livestock Pavilion for the first time, keeping all exams completely indoors and air-conditioned.
“There are so many people who need medical care, dental care, eye care, that we simply have to do our very best to meet their needs and make up for the deficiencies in the health care system,” Burnett says.
This year, twin brother dentists Jamie and Simon Amir are volunteering as co-directors of the FreeD.O.M. Clinic. They have proven invaluable both as health care professionals and recruiters.
“It’s an extremely rewarding experience to have a part in what Dr. Bovell and Ann Burnett have brought to our local community,” Dr. Jamie Amir says. “It is a huge undertaking for them, and they are such inspiring and selfless people. I’m personally honored to be able to contribute to their project in any way I can.”
Dr. Simon Amir agrees.
“I have never met two people so utterly dedicated to helping their fellow man,” he says.
Burnett and Bovell laid the groundwork, and doctors like the Amirs are carrying the torch with their own leadership. But the core of the clinic is the hard work of the doctors and volunteers who offer their services. For them, it’s a labor of love.
“It’s an opportunity to give back to the community and country that has given me and my family so much,” says Dr. Ibrahim Salman, an optician.
Dr. Bill Ritz, a recently retired optometrist, is similarly motivated.
“I have an opportunity to do real community service,” he says. “I enjoy providing vision care for those who fall through the cracks, which is difficult to do in private practice.”
One thing both doctors and patients love about the FreeD.O.M. Clinic is its ease of use.
“All I need to do is show up and pitch in,” says Ritz.
“It’s great to meet other members of my profession,” adds Simon Amir. “It’s also great getting to do the job that I love for two days without anyone having to worry about the bill.”
Despite meticulous training over all ranges of medical practice, there’s still a lot that doctors learn by volunteering with FreeD.O.M.
“You have the opportunity to expand your scope of thought,” says Salman. “Oftentimes, persons of lower means without health care present learning opportunities we often take for granted or only expect to see in third world countries.”
“Having an opportunity to collaborate with my dental and medical colleagues, some of whom are from the local area, some who travel from around the country, is always a pleasure. And that collaboration helps foster a real sense of what giving back to the community really means to us all,” says Jamie Amir. “As a specialist, it’s nice to be in the same room treating patients with some of my referring dentists, who I work with on a regular basis but don’t get to see in person that often.”
Ritz, who is heading up this year’s eye care department at the clinic, encourages his peers to explore the opportunities FreeD.O.M. offers.
“Even full-time practitioners can participate by donating a few afternoons to help,” he says. “Believe me, getting out of your routine and helping folks truly in need is most satisfying. [The clinic] practices pure health care; you don’t have to go out of town to help those in need.”
“Volunteers find it fun, exhilarating and rewarding,” says Simon Amir. “It’s a huge event where you will meet some amazing people. My three assistants came with me last year and are chomping at the bit to return.”
Jamie Amir is even more direct when it comes to encouraging his peers to volunteer.
“Do it! It is so rewarding,” he says. “Many of our local health professionals volunteer in myriad ways, and the FreeD.O.M. Clinic is another great opportunity to help those unable to afford the cost of care. Getting a patient out of pain, who may have been dealing with a problem for months or even years, elicits inexplicable pleasure [for us]. It’s a response we can’t avoid having, because it’s part of being human.”
That humanity, and how it impacts those in need, is really what makes FreeD.O.M. so special.
“Patients who have a need show up anxious and appreciate your service,” Ritz says. “What a joy to see smiles all around.”
“Patients with tears of joy truly make it hard to hold back your own tears,” Salman concurs.
Every doctor has specific memories of patients who are struck by the kindness the clinic gifts them. For Simon Amir, it was a young mother with a damaged tooth.
“A toothache can be the worst pain a person has ever experienced, and she’d had it for three months,” he recalls. “She had been to the emergency room twice, where they only had prescribed her antibiotics to temporarily ease the pain, at best. She was endlessly thankful that we were able to get her out of pain for good.”
After all, putting people out of pain and restoring normalcy to their lives is what puts the care in health care.
“It fulfills part of my life’s mission to help other people,” Simon Amir says. “It is amazing to be part of something that has such a tremendous impact on so many people’s lives in such a short time.”
Find Out More
The 2016 FreeD.O.M. Clinic runs July 28-29 at the Southeastern Livestock Pavilion at 2232 NE Jacksonville Road in Ocala. Patients are encouraged to arrive early and be prepared to spend a good portion of the day at the clinic. Medical, dental and vision services are free, and there are no restrictions, residency or otherwise, placed on services. For more information, call (844) 537-3336 or log on to freedomclinicusa.org or united-hands.com. To get a glimpse of the 2015 clinic, log on to YouTube and search for “FreeD.O.M. Clinic.”
At the clinic, patrons will encounter a variety of care options. Medical care services offered include physical exams; school physicals; pediatric, geriatric and general consultations; chronic disease prevention; hypertension and diabetes counseling; lab testing; and non-narcotic medications and prescriptions.
Dental care offered includes a blood pressure check, comprehensive exam, cleaning, X-rays, fillings, surgical and regular extractions, endodontic root canals, pediatric services, hygiene cleanings, fluoride and restoration.
And the clinic will offer the following vision care: diabetic, glaucoma and cataract eye screenings; refractions; and prescription and reading glasses.
How To Help
Dental and Vision Volunteers Needed: Ann Burnett urges all dental professionals (Florida dentists, non Florida-licensed dentists, dental hygienists and dental assistants) and eye care specialists (optometrists, opticians and optometrist technicians) to volunteer by logging on at freedomclinicusa.org or calling (352) 209-1900 to have their licenses verified and be issued proper credentialing.
“We are completely dependent on the donated expertise of our volunteers, and the more health care professionals who volunteer, the more patients we can see,” Burnett says. “Every dollar of service we can provide with our volunteers is one less health care dollar that gets passed on to taxpayers.”
Donations Appreciated: Non-medical professionals can still help; individuals can make a monetary donation via PayPal at freedomclinicusa.org.
Just One Inspiring Story
While everyone, from doctors to volunteers to patients, walks away with a memorable experience at the FreeD.O.M. Clinic, some people stand out more than others. Dr. Jaime Amir will never forget one patient, who by grim necessity had carved a unique path for himself. Here’s his story in his own words.
I remember a really interesting guy in his 50s who both my assistant and I will never forget. I’ve talked about him many times since, as he really opened my eyes to the range of experiences people in our community go through.
After I completed a tooth extraction on him, we talked about avoiding processed foods and sugars to prevent future problems. When I asked about his diet, he said, ‘I eat a lot of bush food.’
‘Bush food?’ I asked. ‘What does that mean?’
He told us that by bush food he meant the local, edible plants you find growing in the forest. He named off a bunch of edible plants that grew in the area, so clearly he wasn’t making things up.
I asked him how he came to learn about bush food, and he told us that when he was a young teenager, growing up in another state, his father used to beat him, so he would run away from home and fend for himself. So he learned the hard way, that what was edible could be a matter of survival.
When it was cold in the winter he would go back home, then run away as soon as spring arrived, eventually followed by his younger brothers. They would hunt, pick berries, build fires—do everything they needed to do to survive.
His mom would occasionally find them and bring snacks, because she felt sorry for them. But one day, he and his brothers invited his mom to have dinner with them. They served up a grand supper, with wild goose and roasted vegetables. When she saw how well they were eating, she stopped bringing them snacks!
Later, he lived in Ecuador for 10 years, living the same way, and eventually made it to Ocala. Although he now has a wife, two kids and a house, he still wanted to learn what was edible in the area and has taught his children to do the same.
His story was fascinating. And there have been so many other interesting people that I’ve met at FreeD.O.M., all who were grateful for the help they were receiving. I am grateful to help them.”