National

Crowds wait overnight for free medical care

MAYNARDVILLE, Tenn. —The two-hour drive is done, but Hannah and Jack Hurst leave the Honda's engine running.

Hannah's prayers have brought them here. Now there's little to do but turn up the car's heat, get some sleep and wait for morning — and a set of doors to open.

Still, Hannah doesn't complain. The 26-year-old mother of three has waited "pretty much as long as I can remember" to escape the pain throbbing through her jaws. Jack lost his road construction job a year ago and health insurance is out of the question. If the answer to Hannah's misery lies behind those doors, what's 10 hours more?

Out in the dark, the Hursts have plenty of company. Even before 10 p.m. on this Friday in late fall, nearly 50 cars ring the lot. By 6 a.m. Saturday, more than 400 men and women stand tightlipped and bleary-eyed under the Big Dipper.

By day's end, as long as they keep tempers in check and sleep from their eyes, they will win the privilege of care from a dentist or a doctor.

In a country convulsed over health care, the scene is alarming. But it is always the same, Stan Brock says. For 17 years, Brock has piloted a nonprofit called Remote Area Medical, offering free health care to the uninsured, the underinsured and the desperate.

Brock has seen so many crowds like the one outside Union County High School that he lost track of whether this is RAM's 578th expedition or its 587th. Yet in every crowd, there are hundreds of Hannah Hursts, each a unique testament to the nation's ragged pursuit of health care answers.

Over the next two days, RAM's volunteers will examine, extract and prescribe hundreds of solutions for individual aches and afflictions. They will, in the few moments left, attempt to convince patients they'll probably never see again of the virtues of healthier living and continuous care.

When the numbers are totaled, Expedition No. 587 into America's health care jungle will be recorded as followed:

Over 1 1/2 days, 701 patients have come through RAM's doors.

Its dentists have extracted 852 teeth and filled 234 others; 345 pairs of eyes have been tested; 87 people have been examined by a medical doctor.

If RAM was going to send out a bill, it would total $138,370.

Does that make it a solution to a crisis or a symptom? The answer may lie beyond the bottom line.

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