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    Thanks to grants, caregiver can stay

    Kathy Deegan makes sure patients get the attention they need at Clearwater Free Clinic.

    By LORRI HELFAND, Times Staff Writer
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published February 23, 2003


    The Clearwater Free Clinic doesn't usually take walk-ins.

    Nurse practitioner Kathy Deegan last week made an exception for a 52-year-old woman. The second Deegan saw her, she knew she made the right choice.

    The woman had a grapefruit-sized mass growing inside her breast, clearly visible through her T-shirt.

    The patient noticed the lump about a year ago, but couldn't afford to see a doctor. She called a social service hotline and was told she didn't qualify for government assistance. She called the health department but was overwhelmed by the automated answering system. She stopped by a Tampa Bay hospital emergency room and was turned away.

    She walked by the clinic, saw the sign outside and decided to give it one more shot.

    "You're in the right place," Deegan told her.

    "Thank God somebody finally cares," the woman said, breaking into sobs.

    Her patients see Deegan, 44, as a crackerjack caregiver.

    The clinic sees her as a valuable asset. She ensures the clinic can operate for 40 hours a week and that a host of patients can have consistent medical attention.

    But without additional funding, the clinic couldn't afford to keep her.

    Thanks to two recent grants, Deegan is staying put. The Blue Foundation of Healthy Florida, the state's philanthropic affiliate of Blue Cross Blue Shield, is awarding the clinic $50,000 and Morton Plant Mease Foundation is giving it $25,000.

    The Clearwater Free Clinic does not receive regular support from the government, so it relies on donations and grants. It has an operating budget of $150,000 and is run by two full-time paid staff, an executive director and a clinical director. Deegan's salary is not in the budget.

    "There will be a lot of people that will benefit" from Deegan, said Lori Mercer, 43, who came by the clinic because her allergies were on overdrive. "She's good at what she does."

    Mercer, who lives in Clearwater, is a nurse's aide. She recently applied for a job, but said it's been difficult to find a position that meshes with her schedule as a mother of eight. She's one of 6,000 regular patients at the Clearwater Free Clinic, which serves people in North Pinellas who can't afford medical insurance and don't qualify for government-assisted programs.

    More than 100 people volunteer at the clinic as nurses, doctors, pharmacists and office assistants. An independent audit calculated that the clinic gave away more than $1-million in services, not including medications and unlicensed volunteers.

    While on staff, Deegan has helped maintain a pediatric program and started a drug-assistance program that provides free medications for patients. She's also responsible for volunteer and patient education programs.

    Four years ago, patients visited the clinic 6,850 times. In 2002, the visits climbed to 10,855.

    In spite of the 60 percent jump, Jeannie Shapiro, the clinic's executive director, said she would like to serve more uninsured people from north of Park Boulevard to Tarpon Springs.

    "A lot of people still don't know we're here," Shapiro said.

    Susan Towler, executive director of The Blue Foundation, said the trend is echoed throughout Florida.

    "We're a statewide foundation so I'm seeing that need everywhere," she said. The Blue Foundation's annual report showed that more than 2-million people in Florida don't have health coverage and half of those work full or part-time.

    Deegan started at the clinic in 1998, while doing a rotation in nurse practitioner's school, and followed it up by volunteering there for several months.

    "I was amazed by what I saw here and I wanted to be part of it," Deegan said. By July 1999, she came on as a paid staffer. Her position was paid for by a grant from Eckerd Family Foundation, but that funding ended at the end of January.

    On Thursday morning, Deegan met with 55-year-old Nancy Tinnon. Tinnon, who lives in Oldsmar and gets about $870 a month from disability payments. She has 11 prescriptions, which would cost about $700 each month.

    The clinic provides them for free.

    "I'm like a pharmacy. It's terrible. I don't know what I'd do without these people," Tinnon said. "If I ever win the lottery, this is the first place that gets paid. I would've died without them."

    Inside the exam room, Deegan tapped her pen on the counter as she combed through Tinnon's medical file.

    She quizzed her with the intensity of a detective and the warmth of a friend.

    What was her blood sugar level? How much exercise was she getting? Did she need to talk to a dietitian, to make sure she was eating the right things?

    Deegan hesitated while updating Tinnon's prescription list. "I don't see enough steroid here," she said soberly.

    Deegan froze and her freckled face became serious when Tinnon told her she was taking one of her asthma medicines a lot.

    "You can't use it every day. I don't want to see you in the hospital," she told her.

    That straight-shooting attitude also kept Dennis O'Neill on his toes when he found out he was a borderline diabetic.

    "I feel comfortable with her," the 43-year-old Dunedin resident said. "She doesn't pull any punches. I want somebody that's going to tell it to me straight."

    O'Neill, who is trying to get a Web hosting and designing business on its feet, said he can't afford health insurance.

    "I worked for a company that had HMOs. I didn't get the level of care I get here," he said. "Here, they actually care about you. They talk to you."

    Deegan insists the bonus is bigger for her.

    "I can't describe how rewarding it is here," she said. "I get much more working at the clinic than the patents get from us."

    Clearwater Free Clinic is at 707 N Fort Harrison Ave. The clinic sees patients by appointment between 9 a.m and 6:30 p.m. Monday through Thursday. For information, or to volunteer, call (727) 447-3041. No fees are charged, but donations are encouraged.

    -- Lorri Helfand can be reached at (727) 445-4155 or at lorri@sptimes.com .

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