Guadalupe Clinic perseveres with volunteers, faith

When Alice Wiggins joined a handful of other nurses in volunteering to help start a health clinic on South St. Francis in 1985, she had no idea it would evolve into what it is today.

Actually, it wasn't a clinic back then. It was the Guadalupe Health Station, which initially focused on preventive medicine for the uninsured.

"But we began seeing people who were ill and needed care," Wiggins said. "Preventive medicine is wonderful, but first you have to get them well."

So it quickly began doing just that as the Guadalupe Clinic while occupying three rooms of the former parish school of the Our Lady of Guadalupe Catholic Church at 740 S. St. Francis.

As it enters its 25th year in 2010, the clinic has grown considerably.

It now uses all of the renovated space at the former school, expanded to include a satellite clinic at 1406 N. Erie and utilizes more than 150 volunteers.

After starting 25 years ago with a $51,000 private grant from a group of nuns in Oklahoma, the clinic now has an annual budget of $650,000.

But the nonprofit clinic still is about helping the uninsured get well through treatment and live healthier lives through educational classes. From a trickle of patients in that first year, Guadalupe now sees more than 200 weekly.

"I've been in nursing for 35 years," said Marlene Dreiling, who spent two years as a volunteer nurse at the clinic before becoming its executive director in 1999. "This is the most rewarding job I've ever had.

"I think it's because every day you see you're helping the neediest of the needy."

Growth is the only way Guadalupe could attempt to meet those needs.

That includes the expansion of hours the clinic is open during the week, plus the addition five years ago of the Jaydoc Community Clinic.

From 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Saturdays, students from the University of Kansas School of Medicine-Wichita volunteer to see uninsured patients at Guadalupe. A licensed physician oversees the work.

While Guadalupe has a handful of paid staff, the clinic relies heavily on it scores of volunteers.

Wiggins, a retired school nurse, still volunteers one day a week.

"This was all grassroots when it started," Wiggins said. "Just seeing all the volunteers willing to give is rewarding.

"But I've said many times that what you're given back by the patients — they're so appreciative — is as rewarding as the care you're able to give them."

Volunteers include physicians and nurses as well as clerical help. The list of doctors includes various specialists.

Even Guadalupe's medical director, Dan Tatpati, is a volunteer and has been since the clinic's early days.

Dreiling said it's never been a problem getting doctors to volunteer, "not after they've seen the need of the uninsured."

While the clinic sees only the uninsured, it will direct those who may be eligible for Medicaid or Medicare to the right place. A state social worker is at the clinic to help move the paperwork.

Guadalupe goes beyond just meeting medical needs. It passes along donated food and bus fare to patients and directs patients to resources to help keep utilities turned on.

"If they're going to shut your electricity off, that impacts health care," Dreiling said.

Most of the support for Guadalupe comes from the area's parishes. But those same parishes include laid-off workers, so the clinic has been affected significantly by the economic downturn.

Not only have the layoffs helped increase the number of patients the clinic sees weekly to more than 200 — almost a 40 percent jump from six months ago — they have created a donation slump.

"The people that used to be our donors are now our patients," Dreiling said. "Our struggle right now is where do we find the funding to meet the increasing needs."

Being resourceful is a big part of how Guadalupe does it.

One staff member spends most of her time trying to persuade drug companies to donate medications for patients. Last year, the clinic obtained more than $500,000 worth of free medications from the drug companies, Dreiling said.

Other resources have also been donated. The satellite clinic on North Erie is temporarily shut down while volunteers make repairs.

"I can beg with the best of them," Dreiling said. "A wise priest once told me that if you're doing God's work, he'll take care of you. I believe it."

What she doesn't believe is that pending legislation for national health-care reform will erase the need for clinics that care for the uninsured.

Even if the legislation passes, Dreiling noted it's not expected to be enacted until 2014.

"We don't know what the future holds," she said. "We can't worry about what happens in 2014 or if all the uninsured will really be covered.

"We're only concerned about taking care of our patients today, making sure they get what they need today."