Megan Rowe is an administrative programs coordinator at UVA. This is her third year volunteering at RAM.
Once a year, I get lost for three days. I forget that I have a mortgage payment, pets who like to eat every day, a Facebook account. I don’t think about my family and friends (I hope they’re not reading this) or my relatively trivial health concerns.
This is what it’s like to volunteer at the Wise Remote Area Medical (RAM) clinic in southwest Virginia. Thousands of people flood this quiet town over a steamy July weekend seeking free medical, dental and vision care. A couple thousand more come to volunteer. A few come for both.
This will be my third year going. My job last year was to register patients, and I got sucked in. We had slower moments, but the everyday thoughts of my normal life didn’t enter my head as I sat on a folding chair, observing patients try to keep cool with free bottled water while they waited to have teeth pulled or see an endocrinologist.
Every Patient Has a Story
For that weekend, I’m lost in this other world. Residents of Wise and its surrounding counties are more likely than the average Virginia resident to die from diabetes, cancer and heart disease. A world where people are happy to drive all night or sleep in their cars and then wait hours to see a doctor or dentist because for a number of reasons, they can’t just pick up the phone, make an appointment for that afternoon and pay a $20 co-pay.
When newspapers and TV cover RAM, the reporters usually mention that most attendees don’t have health and dental insurance. But there’s no one story that applies to everyone. Some have insurance or Medicare, but because there are fewer doctors in the area, they can’t see a specialist without waiting months or driving for hours.
I talked to one patient who, despite earning three college degrees in computer fields, was unable to find a job with health insurance. He didn’t want to leave southwest Virginia because his sick grandmother lived there and there would be nobody to take care of her. Everyone who volunteers could tell you a story like that.
I’m also caught up in the other side of RAM, the one where I’m working with about 240 other people from UVA. I meet people who I’d otherwise never get to know, and when we pass each other in the hospital months later, we stop, catch up and eventually ask, “So, you think you’ll go to RAM this year?”
Thousands of other volunteers come together from all over Virginia to make this thing happen. We help people by providing health care, but we also often help them just by finding a place for them to sit, offering some cold water and listening while they talk.
I get lost three days a year, and I wish I could do it more often.