It began as a suggestion from Dr. Larry Lewis about providing free medical treatment for those with no insurance, whether private or through the state or federal government.
“It was something that was put in my heart to do when I was in medical school in the 1970s,” Lewis said.
“There were lots of social problems and free clinics were popping up all over the country.”
That idea of a free clinic in McAlester became a reality in 1992, and now, two decades later, the Mercy Health Clinic is marking 20 years of serving patients from — and beyond — the McAlester area.
“It’s pretty amazing,” Dr. Lewis said between seeing Mercy Clinic patients at the Pittsburg County Health Department, where the free clinic is held each Wednesday from 4 until 7 p.m.
“Twenty years have gone by pretty fast,” he said. “We didn’t plan 20 years ahead when we started.”
On Wednesday, volunteers marked the milestone with a low-key celebration by serving punch and cake to those coming into the health department — including a sugar-free cake provided by the McAlester Regional Health Center.
To many volunteers, it hardly seems 20 years have passed. In other ways, it seems a long and compassionate journey.
The come-and-go event Wednesday lasted from 4 p.m. until 7 p.m., the same as the Mercy Clinic’s usual Wednesday hours — the only time the Mercy Clinic is open. It operates one evening a week inside the Pittsburg County Health Department.
Denise Lewis — who is married to Dr. Lewis — is one of the clinic’s volunteers.
“We are a totally free health care clinic for anyone who does not have insurance and doesn’t receive Medicare, Medicaid, or SoonerCare,” Denise Lewis said.
“We do primary health care,” she said. “We have dentists who do extractions only. We also do partials and dentures for patients who qualify.”
Eye exams and eye glasses are also normally available at the Mercy Clinic.
Mental health services are available during regular Mercy Clinic hours on the second and third Wednesdays of each month, she said.
Appointments need to be made by phone on the same Wednesday the patient needs to be seen, according to those operating the Mercy Clinic. Beginning around 1 p.m., those seeking an appointment can phone 918-426-4306, Denise Lewis said.
Although the number of patients vary, there’s usually no shortage of those needing help.
“I think we got about 70 people a night,” Dr. Lewis said.
Dentists got involved after the need became apparent.
“It started on the very first night,” said Dr. Jack Sheets, one of the four dentists helping at the Mercy Clinic.
“Somebody had a toothache,” he said. Sheets said he got a phone call asking “Can you do this?”
“I said ‘Probably.’” Sheets knew the first challenge would be getting the equipment. He contacted Dr. Albert Staples, at the time, the head of oral surgery at the University of Oklahoma College of Dentistry.
“He outfitted the entire dental clinic,” Sheets said.
Larry Auld, who is director of the pharmacy at the McAlester Regional Health Center, volunteers his time to serve as pharmacist for the Mercy Clinic.
He believes things have worked especially well since the Mercy Clinic moved into the Pittsburg County Health Department. It’s previously been located in a building on Carl Albert Parkway and in a facility at The Oaks.
He credited Pittsburg County Health Department Administrator Mike Echelle with working to make the move possible.
“It’s been a great situation for the five years we’ve been here,” Auld said.
Looking back over the 20 years that the Mercy Clinic’s been operating, Auld said “I didn’t know when Dr. Lewis started this it would last for so long.”
Among the medical staff who help make the Mercy Clinic possible:
Dr. John Zelmer assists at least once a month.
Four dentists assist with the Mercy Clinic: Dr. Jack Sheets, Dr. Bill Wynn, Dr. Mike Auld and Dr. Shane Ragan.
Dr. Hailey Kanard is the optometrist for the Mercy Clinic.
Nurse Practitioners Marti Fields and Kathy Pulchney are considered vital members of the team.
Board members for the Mercy Clinic consist largely of those who either serve as volunteer or assist the Mercy Clinic in some other capacity.
They include Dr. Lewis, who is chairman; Denise Lewis, treasurer; Carolyn West, secretary, who also serves as receptionist, Pittsburg County Health Department Administrator Mike Echelle, Fields, Dr. Sheets, Carol Sanders, who is a volunteer; hospital CEO David Keith, and Auld.
Denise Lewis said the Mercy Clinic is extremely appreciative of the support it receives through the community and she wants to let everyone know the volunteers are still out there serving others.
“We’re still there every Wednesday, doing what we do,” she said.
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