Three hours into the Remote Area Medical care event at Manatee Technical College, hundreds of people had already received free medical, dental or vision care, and many more were lined up outside the door Saturday.
It speaks to the “desperation” of the healthcare environment for those unable to obtain quality insurance or who simply don’t have the access, according to John Myers, president of the volunteer RAM board of directors.
“Our goal over the 32 years of this organization is to alleviate pain and suffering and provide free quality medical care,” Myers said. “We have people who are unemployed or in severe pain or maybe they just can’t see. They are all extremely grateful. We see people camped out in the parking lot, some at 6 p.m. the night before.”
Raquel Cummings was there well before that.
Cummings arrived at 4:30 a.m. on Friday morning bound and determined to be the first one in the doors Saturday morning at 6 a.m. She succeeded and talked about why this event in Bradenton — in its fifth year — is so important.
“The whole setup has been phenomenal for me,” Cummings said. “I’m a full-time caregiver and I have no insurance at all. This is where I get my glasses and dental cleanings. Eye glasses are a big expense and this really helps and it also allows me to care for myself. As a caregiver, this gives me a little down time to take care of myself and I’m sincerely grateful.”
Cummings’ story is not unique.
Often the term “needy” can be misinterpreted, and the RAM event highlights that the so-called needy are more often than not just hard working families struggling to make ends meet. Keeping up with prescription glasses, dental cleanings and basic medical care can be expenses outside the realm of possibility for a lot of people.
“I think in general people think this is just for disadvantaged people,” said Loren Hutchinson, optometric assisting instructor at MTC. “Yes, we service people who may be homeless or who may be recovering from different things, but a lot of people are working class people and their family members.”
Many of Hutchinson’s students volunteered for the day, as did students from the University of Florida and LECOM.
“It’s a wonderful experience to help people who are in need and be able to get real life experience for these students, as well,” Hutchinson said. “To work with patients and see what their community needs. It’s not just one demographic. We are serving people, their neighbors, their church members and a wide variety of people from children to their grandparents.”
It is indeed a generational experience for many.
“Many are in the same position like mine,” Cummings said. “Dental and vision is something many insurances don’t cover and it gets to be expensive, even for children. I see the children and their grandparents here. Generations of people. And I hear the same thing from them. This is just a great thing.”
The stories are many.
Last year during a clinic in Tennessee a woman suffering from dental pain took a bus from St. Louis, stayed at a women’s shelter and walked five miles to the clinic seeking relief. Last year in Bradenton, a glaucoma patient who could barely see came in for drops but after much convincing from Hutchinson, took an eye exam, walked out with glasses and could see better than he had in years.
“That’s the biggest thing people need to take away from this,” Hutchinson said. “These are working class people and the students are not only seeing how this school is changing their lives, but how they can contribute to change the lives of others in this beautiful way. They are using their skills to change the lives of others in their community.”
It wouldn’t be possible without people like Hutchinson, the medical professionals, the students and so many others who volunteer at the RAM events. The organization is about 99.5 percent all volunteer, but they need more, particularly from the professionals. There were 400 people who came for vision care and there were only six doctors.
Walmart sent about 100 employees to the event, including pharmacists and optometrists. Between the Manatee County Walmarts and Neighborhood Markets, about $51,000 was donated to the local event, which doesn’t include pallets of supplies and food. Neighborhood Market associates even cooked dinner for all the volunteers.
“It’s about helping people in need,” said Mitch Ziobro, health and wellness marketing director for Walmart. “Our core customer is someone who needs help with finances, so we wanted to be involved because it’s a good thing to help out. We just want to give back to our community.”
Ellen Lockhart is one of Walmart’s licensed dispensing optometrists and found the experience humbling to say the least.
“I’m just a small pebble in a large pond created by all these wonderful people who have started a huge ripple of people who want to donate their time and talent,” Lockhart said. “It’s just part of the Walmart culture.”
According to the U.S. Census, more than 17 percent of Bradenton’s population lives below the poverty rate, but that certainly doesn’t take into account the many paycheck-to-paycheck families. Almost 25 percent of seniors in Bradenton have no insurance. Just in the prior four years RAM has come to Bradenton, more than 4,000 have been served with a value of $1.5 million in free care.
RAM was founded by Stan Brock while living in the upper Amazon with a local Indian tribe. Brock, who recently passed away, was in a bad horse accident and the nearest doctor was 26 days away on foot. Brock launched a campaign to make medical assistance easier for the remote tribes in the Amazon, but when he traveled to the United States 32 years ago, he saw the same need.
Since then, more than 135,000 Americans have been served by RAM across the U.S.
“Stan was one of the most giving people I have ever known,” Myers said. “He never took a penny in pay.”
Brock’s legacy of providing a much-needed service continues, as does the RAM event on Sunday. Doors open at 6 a.m., but those attending should arrive early. Patients are seen in numerical order, and ticket distribution begins at 3 a.m. The event concludes at noon.
Manatee Technical College has three locations, but the RAM event is only at 6305 E. State Road 70.
Basic services include dental cleanings, fillings, extractions, X-rays, eye exams, glaucoma testing, eyeglass prescriptions, eyeglasses made on site, women’s health exams and general medical exams.