Tree of Life Blooming: Free mission clinic averages 200 patients a month

By Michaela Gibson Morris / NEMS Daily Journal


TUPELO – The need for medical care has been nearly overwhelming to the organizers of the Tree of Life/Arbol de la Vida Medical Clinic.
The community response to that need has been heart-warming.
“I’m just most appreciative of the way everyone has joined together,” said retired Tupelo pediatrician Bill Hilbun, a Tree of Life clinic board member.
Since it opened in January with one monthly clinic, the Tree of Life Clinic, which sees patients without health insurance with no restrictions on residence or income, has recorded 2,000 patient visits and filled 7,500 prescriptions without any paid staff.
The clinic added a second clinic day each month this summer. Now volunteer health care providers see patients on the first Wednesday evening and the third Saturday at the clinic’s building at 541 W. Main St.
“We’re averaging about 90 on Wednesday and 130 on Saturday,” said clinic founder Dr. Joe Bailey. “It would not be possible without the volunteers. It’s been a broad effort by the community.”
People have sought care from across the region and beyond.
“We’ve had people come from Olive Branch, Tennessee, Columbus and Alabama,” said clinic volunteer Jo Mark of Tupelo.
The clinic’s doors are open when times have been toughest for many Northeast Mississippi workers.
“For all the people, especially those who have lost their jobs, it has been one of the best programs,” said Elquin Gonzales, a Tree of Life board member.
Mission roots
Tree of Life Clinic has its roots in Mexico and South America. Many of the founding volunteers had participated in mission medical clinics and were inspired to put that model to work for people in Northeast Mississippi without access to medical resources.
Tupelo Pharmacist Bill Austin, a Tree of Life board member, clearly remembers a conversation with Bailey in the Houston airport on their way home from a mission trip in Mexico.
“We go out and do this work in Mexico, but there’s a lot of people right in our backyard who need help,” Austin said.
The Tree of Life clinic has grown much faster than anticipated in its first year.
“All the tumblers clicked at the right time,” Bailey said.
Dr. Mark Shepherd lent his clinic building to give a place to open. Gilmore Memorial Hospital provided seed money for the first supply of medications.
Calvary Baptist Church offered the use of a building for a more permanent home and pays the utilities for the clinic. Volunteers renovated the building. Eldercare Prescriptions continues to provide medications worth $3,000 a month. Area eye doctors are collecting used glasses to give to the clinic’s patients. North Mississippi Medical Center Pathology department takes care of lab tests for patients.
There is a group of 24 physicians and nurse practitioners, four pharmacists and more than 300 general volunteers who allow the clinic to operate. It takes about 25 volunteers to work each clinic. There is no paid staff.
Safety net
The Tree of Life clinic is one piece of the safety net community organizations have woven.
“We can’t be all things to all people,” Bailey said. “We have a good working relationship with the Good Samaritan clinic.”
Antone Tannehill Good Samaritan Free Clinic, founded 18 years ago, provides a medical home to working Lee County residents who can’t access health insurance. Volunteer health care providers see patients several days a week and can provide medical imaging, referrals to specialists and basic dental care.
The Tree of Life clinic hasn’t seen as many children as initially anticipated. Hilbun attributes that to good coverage by Medicaid and CHIPs programs, as well as CATCH Kids, a volunteer medical organization that sees children in schools and weekly community clinics in Chickasaw, Lee and Pontotoc counties.
In the future
Providing basic dental care is at the top of the 2011 wish list for the Tree of Life clinic.
Tupelo Dentist Dr. Mindy Austin is leading the effort to provide some basic dental care through the Tree of Life Clinic, Bailey said. Equipment has been donated and dentists have volunteered their services. Organizers currently are working on a location to offer those services; a $20,000 grant from the Dorothy D. and George H. Ruff Foundation has been earmarked to make dental services a reality.
The clinic will continue to need the support of the Northeast Mississippi community to answer the call for medical care.
“If that spirit continues we’ll be great,” Hilbun said.