LEWISTON, Maine — They trooped in and out all morning Thursday. The guy struggling with childhood trauma. The men and women who needed flu shots. The person with chronic pain.
The closet-sized room at the Trinity Jubilee Center isn’t plush or even well-equipped. But it has the one thing Trinity and its people need: a doctor to care for them, for free.
“I know you can do medical care — without a computer and without lots of diagnostic stuff — that is worthwhile doing,” said Dr. Alice Haines.
Over the past 30 years, Haines has practiced medicine at refugee camps in Kenya and with displaced earthquake victims in Haiti, at free clinics and in rural Maine, taking her straightforward, no-nonsense style and medical expertise directly to people who needed help the most.
And now she’s opened what Trinity leaders believe is the only free clinic in Lewiston-Auburn.
“It’s another thing we can offer the folks who come here,” said Kim Wettlaufer, Trinity’s executive director. “For us it’s just another chance to serve the folks who are sort of on the margins.”
For 20 years, Trinity has provided help for people in inner-city Lewiston. Much of that has come in the form of food, with a once-a-week pantry and daily meals for local residents. Drop-ins can also get clothes, find help with job applications and resumes and get paperwork translated. Trinity is used by immigrants and refugees, as well as Americans who are poor or who have mental health or substance abuse issues.
But while Trinity has dabbled in health care — nursing students from the University of Southern Maine have provided regular blood pressure checks there for years and a charity group once did teeth-cleaning in a nook off the dining hall — it never offered full medical care.
When Trinity’s people were sick or hurt, they went to an emergency room or got a ride to a free clinic in Portland. They could also go to B Street Health Center, which provides low-cost and charity care just down the street, but making and keeping an appointment or filling out paperwork proved to be a barrier for some, particularly those with mental illnesses. A local, free clinic wouldn’t have those barriers.
“When the USM nursing students came (to Trinity), it sort of would get you thinking, ‘Where could we go from here?’” Wettlaufer said. “But, of course, you have to have a doctor.”
She has worked in the area, including two years at the B Street Health Center. In the November she opened her own low-cost, one-woman practice on Pine Street in Lewiston to cater to patients without health insurance. But even with that new office, Haines knew she would have time on her hands, and she knew there was a greater need.
Trinity is across Kennedy Park, a short walk from her office. She asked if she could set up a free clinic there.
Trinity said yes.
“This is the place people really trust, and we can build on that,” said Erin Reed, food pantry coordinator at Trinity.
Haines spent her earliest days building trust of her own. Sometimes she offered blood pressure checks or flu shots. Other times she hung around Trinity’s main room and chatted with people.
“It’s important not to just be seen as somebody who’s trying to change you,” Haines said. “I think when you’re down and out, you feel bad enough about yourself without feeling like a do-gooder is coming in because you’re not good enough.”
By mid November, she’d officially moved into a spare room in the back. The space — used at times for storage — was sparse and small, but it had a door that locked, which was good for patient privacy. A fabric-draped table would be used for exams and a folding metal chair would give patients or their family members a place to sit. Haines brought her own desk.
Every Thursday morning from 8:30 to 11, she opens for business.
Mahad Ali was one of the people who got a flu shot Thursday. He hadn’t planned to, but he was at the center and Haines offered. The whole process took less than five minutes, and Ali didn’t even feel the needle.
It left him feeling happy about the clinic.
“It’s very good,” he said through a translator. Then he joked, “Absolutely, yeah, I’ll come back … as long as they aren’t going to send me a bill.”
Haines has seen about 30 patients since November, most of them native to the area. Many just wanted their blood pressure checked, “testing out whether they trust us,” Haines said. Others wanted a second opinion on a medical problem or a flu shot. One person came in with exposure from the cold.
A couple of people have sought drugs. Although Haines can prescribe medication, she doesn’t do painkillers or other controlled substances. To make that clear beforehand, three handwritten signs have have been taped to the little room’s walls and door, advising patients, “No narcotics are prescribed at this clinic.”
She’s also seen people who need help for mental health problems or need someone to help them navigate the medical system. She makes referrals and calls other doctors when necessary.
The clinic is as low-budget as it can be and still provide care. There is no equipment, high-tech or otherwise. Haines’ doctor’s bag is a canvas tote stuffed with all of the tools she can carry. Because the clinic has no refrigerator, she brings flu vaccine from her Pine Street office and keeps it cold in an L.L. Bean insulated bag. Patient medical records are written on index cards kept in a locked cabinet in the clinic room.
But though the clinic is low-budget, it does have help. Bates pre-med students volunteer there, as does Reshid Shankol, an Ethiopian doctor who is working to get credentialed in the United States. And although they aren’t affiliated with the clinic, USM nursing students continue to come once a week for half the year to do blood pressure checks.
Haines would like more people involved. She’s hoping to find five to seven volunteers to form a clinic steering committee. She would like to get a grant to hire a part-time office manager or director to help with paperwork, referrals and fundraising, and she’d love more doctors to join the staff. Eventually, she’d like the clinic to expand to other sites.
But for now, she’s content with treating Trinity’s people three and a half hours once a week. And so is Trinity.
“We’re so grateful to be able to offer this,” Reed said. “This wasn’t anything we were aspiring toward. It just seemed so impossible.”