IF YOU GO
What: Free dental, vision and medical services
When: Today Numbers are handed out at 3:30 a.m., doors open at 6 a.m.
Where: Camp Jordan Arena, 323 Camp Jordan Road, East Ridge
How it works: No fee, no eligibility requirements. First come, first served.
Online: Go to www.ramusa.org for more information.
The Berry family drove from Knoxville on Friday evening, pulling into Camp Jordan about 8:45 p.m. Two-year-old Kendra brought her pink Barbie backpack and her doll dressed in a purple sleeper. The doll doesn't have a name, she insisted, as she held it tight.
They settled down for a long night of waiting and fitful catnaps in their car.
The Berrys — 25-year-old Nakeesha and 30-year-old Brandon — hoped they'd be among the lucky ones lining up at Camp Jordan to get free dental, vision and medical care offered by the Knoxville-based Remote Area Medical Volunteer Corps. Both have teeth that need fillings; Nakeesha's mom needs a tooth pulled. None of them has insurance.
Two years after federal health reform was signed into law with the goal of increasing the number of insured Americans and providing more comprehensive medical coverage, the lines at the free RAM clinics haven't gotten any shorter, organizers say. If anything, as the economy sputters along and people continue to lose their jobs or find only part-time employment, the lines have gotten longer.
Most of the people show up for dental work or glasses, RAM founder Stan Brock said. They likely need medical care for chronic illnesses, too, but a toothache is of more immediate concern.
"I don't see anything changing far, far into the future," Brock said.
The first patients began trickling into East Ridge before dusk Friday, with hundreds of cars filling the lot long before daylight. Around 3 a.m. more than 200 lined up for their first numbers, and more arrived throughout the night.
By 5 a.m. their long wait was nearly over. Many sat in lawn chairs, clutching their yellow slips of paper. A few opened coolers packed with sandwiches and soft drinks. They huddled in blankets or pulled hoodies over their heads to ward off the September chill. Lit cigarettes made tiny red dots across the parking lot.
There are so many stories — a 34-year-old woman from Athens, Tenn., with multiple sclerosis who leans on her walker; a 55-year old woman from Ringgold, Ga., who lost her home recently and moved in with her father; a group of seven from Sequatchie County, Tenn., most of whom haven't seen a dentist for years.
National Guard soldiers organized the groups in lines of 50. They talked quietly, laughing, sharing stories with strangers next in line. Most of them waited patiently.
At 6 a.m., the doors opened.
Inside the arena, volunteers sat behind tables, ready to hand out forms -- pink for dental, white for medical and blue for vision — take blood pressure and begin pulling teeth or giving eye exams. More than 50 dental chairs were curtained off in the back of the arena. Eye-testing equipment lined one side, with hundreds of pairs of donated frames laid out on tables. Outside in the back were two eye labs where a pair of prescription lenses can be finished in less than an hour.
Bob Nevil, a physical therapist at the Center for Sports Medicine and Orthopaedics, began volunteering with RAM about three years ago. He spearheaded the organization of the Camp Jordan clinic, finding donors to help cover costs and getting local groups involved in volunteering. Saturday morning he was seemingly everywhere at once, answering questions and directing patients.
This is his 12th clinic. The grateful patients and selfless volunteers keep him coming back, he said. Most of the care provided, like dental and vision, offers the immediate help the patients need.
For the few who came for medical help, organizers tried to connect them to local physicians for more comprehensive care. Everyone who saw a doctor on Saturday will be referred to the Hamilton County Volunteers in Medicine group for follow-up care, Nevil said.
By 7:30 a.m. the Berry family had filled out forms and been triaged through the dental lines. After a wait on the bleachers, they were sitting in a row of chairs marked "fillings" next to the cordoned-off dental area.
Both of them have jobs, but neither employer offers insurance coverage, they said. Their paychecks barely cover the bills. Several months ago they visited a RAM clinic in East Tennessee but didn't get there early enough to see a dentist. If they need medical care, they'll go to an emergency room and try to make payments on the bills, they said.
"Sometimes it seems like the harder you work, the less you get," Nakeesha said.
By 8 a.m., volunteers had handed out more than 400 yellow slips.
Nevil stopped to chat with the 55-year-old from Ringgold, Sandy Ritchie. She lives with her father but misses her dog, a border collie mix she had to place with a friend.
Everyone who comes to the RAM clinics has a story, Nevil said.
"You ask yourself, 'Why them, and why am I so blessed?'" His voice breaks and he stops, unable to continue.
Mariann Martin covers healthcare in Chattanooga and the surrounding region. She joined the Times Free Press in February 2011, after covering crime and courts for the Jackson (Tenn.) Sun for two years. Mariann was born in Indiana, but grew up in Pennsylvania, Tennessee and Belize. She graduated from Union University in 2005 with degrees in English and history and has master’s degrees in international relations and history from the University of Toronto. While attending Union, ...