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Catholic Charities honors volunteers at free health care center

| Sunday, Oct. 28, 2012, 9:12 p.m.
Dr. Bernie Grimes and Pharmacy Intern Jenna Strobl exam the feet of diabetes patient Vincente Sandoval at the Catholic Charioties free clinic in Downtown Pittsburgh on Wednesday October 24, 2012. Sidney Davis | Tribune-Review
Dr. Bernie Grimes (seated) discusses treament with patient Vincente Sandoval as Pharmacy Intern Jenna Strobl listens at the Catholic Charioties free clinic in Downtown Pittsburgh on Wednesday October 24, 2012. Sidney Davis | Tribune-Review
Dr. Lionel Carlos, DMD performs a teeth cleaning on Gil Wimbs at the Catholic Charioties free clinic in Downtown Pittsburgh on Wednesday October 24, 2012. Sidney Davis | Tribune-Review

Idida Cruz didn't know what to expect when her doctors referred her to the Catholic Charities Free Health Care Center, Downtown, for dental work to help keep her free of infection while she waited for a kidney transplant.

“They have a lot of retired doctors who volunteer there. Some people don't want to go to older doctors,” said Cruz, 62, of Lower Burrell. “I think they have more experience. They kept me healthy.”

The center, which will mark its fifth anniversary on Nov. 5, serves the working uninsured and their families. During the past five years, more than 10,000 people have received free care from 153 volunteers during 25,000 visits.

That amounts to more than 5 million donated service hours, said Annette Fetchko, administrator of the center on Ninth Street.

The center will recognize its volunteers and community partners at a “Red Carpet” event Nov. 5 in St. Paul Seminary Cardinals' Great Hall in Crafton.

“They had me in every three months,” said Cruz, who received a new kidney on Oct. 15 at Allegheny General Hospital, North Side. “I feel good. There's no complications.”

The need for health services for this segment of the population was so great that four months after the center opened, officials expanded operations from three days a week to five, providing specialty services including eye care, oral and maxillary surgery, minor outpatient surgical procedures and physical therapy.

The growing demand helped lure Ed Kelly, a retired orthopedic surgeon from Upper St. Clair, out of retirement to serve as the center's volunteer medical director five years ago. It's a job he can't give up.

“It's amazing what we expected to become and what we became. ... It's become a joy,” said Kelly, 71, who initially told his wife he'd work at the center for a couple of months.

What started with three physicians and one dentist has grown to 45 physicians — including gynecologists, podiatrists and endocrinologists — and 19 dentists.

“We're opening doors that people don't know are there,” said Kelly, who volunteers with Operation Safety Net, a medical ministry to Pittsburgh's homeless.

A $100,000 grant from BNY Mellon allowed the center to add a full-time dentist last year and wipe out a waiting list of 1,000 people that stretched 16 to 18 months, said Lionel Carlos, 46, of Moon, who filled the position.

“A lot of insurance companies and the government consider dental a luxury,” he said.

Gil Wimbs, 57, of the North Side was on that waiting list.

“Without this, I wouldn't have (dental care),” he said after a routine cleaning.

Another dental suite and an addition of medical rooms are planned as part of an expansion of the center.

For some volunteers, it's a family affair.

Endocrinologist Bernie Grimes and his wife, Mary Carroll, have logged a combined 2,090 hours of service.

“It's so gratifying, the appreciation of the patients,” said Grimes, 78, of McMurray, who even has driven patients without transportation to see other doctors or specialists.

Weight and diabetes are two big problems facing his patients.

“People need dietary advice,” he said. “We would love to have a volunteer dietitian.”

About 2 million people, most of them uninsured, visit the nation's 1,200 free clinics each year, said Nicole Larnoureux Busby, executive director of the National Association of Free and Charitable Clinics, based in Alexandria, Va.

“We're seeing a 40 to 50 percent increase in patient demand and, because of the economy, a 20 percent decrease in donations,” she said. “We're being asked to do more with less.”

The center's annual operating budget has reached almost $1 million, up from $600,000 five years ago. It relies entirely on donations and grants.

“With the economy, a lack of physicians willing to see this population and changes at the state level, the need will only continue to grow,” Fetchko said. “As the need increases, the available pool of dollars is shrinking.”

Craig Smith is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-380-5646 or csmith@tribweb.com.

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