In the neighborhoods of Hartford and East Hartford, a cadre of medical professionals who share the pope’s sentiments has been providing free and compassionate health care to the needy for years.
This year, the Malta House of Care Mobile Medical Clinic is celebrating its 10th anniversary as a provider of free primary care medical services to the uninsured. The mobile clinic offers free exams, lab work, x-rays and partially subsidized prescriptions.
“We realize health care is an essential part of human dignity, and access to it is a basic right,” said Dr. Pauline Olsen, a member of the Order of Malta and a volunteer physician who has been a linchpin of the Hartford mobile clinic since it opened its doors in 2006. “Having the van is a wonderful thing.”
The Hartford Malta mobile clinic currently serves the working poor in neighborhoods by operating one afternoon a week at each of the following locations: the Cathedral of St. Joseph on Farmington Avenue, St. Peter Parish on Main Street and St. Augustine Parish on Campfield Avenue, all in Hartford, and at St. Rose Parish on Church Street in East Hartford.
Today, all four sites combined log a total of 3,000 to 4,000 patient visits per year, and doctors see an average of 25-30 patients every afternoon, four afternoons a week. “We have several thousand who look on the van as their medical home like others look to their primary care doctor,” said Dr. Olsen, who was awarded the national L’Oreal Paris Women of Worth award in 2010 for her efforts with the van and for her lifetime commitment to those in need.
Father Robert Roy, pastor of St. Rose Parish in East Hartford, said, “The Malta House of Care becomes that visible sign in our neighborhood of ‘God’s mercy at work.’”
During a visit to St. Rose Parish on a recent Monday afternoon, the Malta House of Care Mobile Medical Clinic parked directly behind the red brick church. In the church basement, medical assistants with laptops registered patients. Behind a privacy screen, a dietician advised a patient. In the far corner, doctors delivered lab results. Patients sat at round tables waiting for their names to be called to enter the mobile clinic.
In the van, patients were guided to one of two examining rooms, where a doctor and a resident physician took charge. A medical scribe placed orders for lab tests and prescriptions, while a nurse with a walkie-talkie alerted medical assistants in the waiting room when doctors were ready for their next patient. The patient flow was steady throughout the afternoon.
Dr. Theresa Caputo, director of the Hartford mobile clinic, oriented a new resident physician and stopped to chat with the patients.
“They deserve care as much as any other patients,” she said of those who came to the clinic that day. “It’s really a chance to give back to the community. For me, medicine was never about earning a large salary. It was about patient care.”
In 2010, Hartford Business Journal named Dr. Caputo “A Health Care Hero” for her volunteer service to the Malta clinic prior to her being hired as director in 2014. Today, Dr. Caputo leads a team of three full-time employees and one part-timer, and more than 70 volunteer doctors, residents, nurses and other medical professionals drawn from throughout the state.
“We definitely prevent patients from getting complications. We prevent unnecessary ER visits and give them a sense of how to take care of themselves. The dietician is a godsend,” she added.
It takes $1 million per year to operate the Hartford mobile clinic and pay for patients’ lab tests, X-rays and prescriptions and maintenance on the van, she said. The Malta program has arrangements with Arrow Pharmacy and St. Francis Hospital for some services at reduced rates. Both the Hartford and Waterbury Malta mobile clinics are funded by donations and grants, including funds from the Archdiocese of Hartford’s Archbishop’s Annual Appeal.
The few paid staff and many volunteers are also critical to the program’s success.
“My staff is great,” Dr. Caputo said. “They really try hard to take care of patients as best they can. The medical assistants help me every morning, calling patients to come back. They speak Spanish. They’re really trying to make a difference in people’s lives.”
Dr. Brad Wilkinson, a family physician who volunteers with the mobile clinic three days a week, was honored as a 2010 Local Hero by the Bank of America Foundation Neighborhood Builder Program for his service.
“I tell everybody that it’s the most rewarding practice of medicine that I’ve done in 40 years of medicine,” Dr. Wilkinson said. “There’s really a nice esprit de corps among the staff, but the bigger reason is being able to help these patients. Almost all have been handed the most terrible hand of cards and are on the lowest socioeconomic scale, so being able to help them is a pleasure. It’s remarkable how grateful they are for how little we can do for them.”
Maryann DeTorre is a full-time registered nurse who works as the clinical supervisor, overseeing the patient flow, staffing and scheduling. “I’m hands-on. I do everything from changing the light bulbs to managing the medical assistants, to follow-up calls with patients to orienting new volunteers,” she said.
“I give my card out everywhere I go. You don’t know who doesn’t have insurance. I try to make people feel as comfortable as possible, just out of respect,” Ms. DeTorre said.
Dr. Katelyn Zachan, a third-year resident in family medicine from Eastern Connecticut Health Network at Manchester Hospital, was working her first day of a month-long rotation at the mobile clinic. During her first afternoon, she said she saw ailments ranging from diabetes to an intra-abdominal mass.
“I’m getting a lot of experience,” Dr. Zachan said, “and get to do a lot of patient care with patients who need it and are grateful, so it’s a really rewarding experience.”
Claire Dalidowitz, a registered dietician, volunteers one afternoon a week. “I would like to break the cycle of poverty,” she said, “so it’s been a nice match for me – the poverty piece and medical care.”
Mrs. Dalidowitz educates patients in diets to treat lifestyle diseases, such as high blood pressure and gastric reflux disease. “My patients follow up on what I ask them to do – put it into practice. Changing your diet is not easy,” she said, “but they actually do it.”
Many of her patients, including the men, cook rather than eat expensive processed foods, but they don’t have much money for food or supplements, she said. “Trying to work around the low-income status is challenging,” she said, so she often directs patients to food pantries, such as the Mobile Foodshare van and the Malta/St. Justin Food Pantry. She also provides educational handouts.
“I come out of here every week and say, ‘That was a good day.’ You know you made a difference.”