47 million Americans have NO medical insurance. Many millions more are underinsured and they too are just one catastrophic event away from bankruptcy or even life on the streets. A debilitating disease like cancer, a car crash or a heart attack and medical bills could eat them alive.
To you readers overseas, this may be hard to believe in a country with America’s resources but it does not offer universal healthcare. People are left to fend for themselves.
But there is an angel of hope for tens of thousands of people including Americans. Remote Area Medical, called RAM. RAM was set-up to provide medical care for remote Amazon Indians. It was founded in 1985 by Stan Brock, who you may recall was a co-star many years ago on the “Wild Kingdom” television show.
Stan had spent many years living in the Amazon rainforest with the Wapishana Indians. He saw first hand the devastation on tribesmen a simple disease could cause because medical care was inaccessible. With an aching heart, he regularly buried men, women and children and sometimes babies.
In the rainforest, treatable diseases such as malaria or the occasional animal attack led to death because the nearest town would be a 25 to 35 day trek through the forest. So Stan a veteran pilot bought old but reliable aircraft to airlift patients.
But he soon realized it would be far better to ask doctors, dentists, optometrists and other medical professionals to volunteer brief amounts of time, free of charge, fly them in and treat thousands of patients at once. He also asked pharmaceutical companies to donate medications.
This approach has saved thousands of lives, as patients in need get treated while entire villages get preventative care which has saved many thousands more. It can be as simple as inoculating children so they never contract diseases that used to kill prior generations of children.
Saving lives touched the hearts of many medical professionals and by 2005, over 22,000 of them had made nearly 250,000 patient visits. Their humanitarian work continues today in Guyana and Honduras in South America, and in Kenya and Swaziland in Africa.
But RAM has now become a medical lifeline to thousands of Americans in need as well. Recently in Wise County, Virginia, RAM hosted what may be the largest U.S. medical event of its kind. In just 2 ½ day days 1,377 RAM volunteers conducted 8,431 patient visits.
Preeminent television show 60 Minutes not long ago broadcast another of RAM’s medical events, a giant clinic it ran over a weekend in a Knoxville, Tennessee exhibition hall.
Doctors prepped for what ever medical issues would present themselves, dentists prepared their dental tools en masse, optometrists got ready to examine patients and construct pairs of glasses and other medical professionals likewise got ready with the enthusiasm of a team about to play in the Super Bowl.
Prior to midnight, seven hours before the clinic would open, a crowd had gathered in the parking lot and Stan Brock handed out numbered tickets, valuable pieces of paper that would determine who and in what order, patients would be seen.
So many people waited in the icy 27 degree overnight temperature, state guardsmen conducted crowd control for no-one wanted to be left out. At 6 am the doors opened and 276 volunteers from 11 states welcomed their patients.
One man had driven 200 miles with his wife and daughter and they slept overnight in their vehicle in the parking lot. This man had a badly infected tooth that for weeks had caused him excruciating pain, but he could not afford to see a dentist.
A few years earlier, he had two heart attacks and heart surgery but had had little follow-up since. He’s a truck driver and his employer provides him with medical insurance but he can’t afford the $500 deductible nor pay separately for dental insurance.
Another patient was a 28-year-old woman who had cervical cancer surgery three years ago. She was supposed to have a pap smear every six months but had had only one Pap smear since her surgery. Why? She and her husband and their three children are struggling to make ends meet, especially since he lost his job the prior summer.
For patients such as these, with serious medical conditions, RAM will seek a volunteer doctor to continue to provide them with care.
As for Stan Brock, at 71 years-of-age, RAM is his life. He has no family, no salary and lives in a former school the city of Knoxville provides to RAM for one dollar. At times, he has showered in the court yard using a garden hose. The intent is to conserve money so they can treat as many patients as possible.
“We actually run the organization with a small, minimally compensated staff working extremely long hours,” Stan said on RAM’s website. “They are assisted by two or three of us, including myself, who receive no compensation, some of us working seven days a week…”
RAM has a tiny budget of just $250,000 a year, and yet last year it treated 17,000 patients. Their funding comes mostly from people who send them $5 and $10 checks, and every dollar counts.
As the 60 Minutes coverage of the Knoxville event came to a close, RAM had seen 920 patients, made 500 pair of glasses, took 94 mammograms, removed 1,066 teeth and had done 567 fillings.
But when Stan stood in the parking lot and called out the last numbers, his eyes began to tear, for 400 people were going to be turned away.
“Yeah, you know, that’s the lousy part of this job,” he told correspondent Scott Pelley. “I mean, it’s nice to be able to know that you’ve helped a bunch of people. But the reality is that we can’t do everybody.
“At the moment, we’re just seeing the thousands and thousands of people that we can, and the rest of them, unfortunately, have got to do the best they can without us,” said Stan.
Orginally Published on August 26th, 2008