“Little Clinic That Could” Approaches 25,000 Patients

Article by Michele Jurich of the The Catholic Voice:

The Order of Malta Clinic of Northern California is expecting to receive its 25,000th patient visit sometime in the spring of 2017.

What the clinic didn't expect this year was a visit from the patron of the Order of Malta. Cardinal Raymond Burke came by on a Sunday afternoon, the day before spring, to offer his blessing, and get a glimpse of how the uninsured are treated at the clinic at the Cathedral of Christ the Light.

The cardinal, who had been to San Francisco the previous week for a canon law conference, crossed the bay to celebrate Mass at St. Margaret Mary Church in Oakland before coming to the cathedral.

Members of the Order of Malta, who have nurtured the clinic through its first eight years, lined the waiting room as the cardinal arrived. The cardinal was greeted by Bishop Michael C. Barber, SJ, and Very Rev. George Mockel, vicar general.

In turn, the cardinal got to greet patient Sister Magdalene Yee, as she came for a follow-up visit with the clinic's medical director, Dr. Vona Lorenzana.

"Welcome," the cardinal greeted Sister Magdalene, a Mercy sister who is now a member of the Servants of Christ Lay Community.

With the patient's permission, the cardinal had the chance to observe as nurse practitioner Ron Connolly took her vital signs before escorting her to one of the clinic's three exam rooms.

In many respects, this is the little clinic that could. Staffed largely by volunteers — among them, 25 doctors and 35 nurses, who carefully navigate its 1,800 square feet — it's a medical center with specialists and something lacking in most medicine today: time. Appointments are scheduled in 30-minute increments.

No patient receives a bill for services. No insurance is billed. No government funds bolster its budget.

It operates on a budget of about half a million dollars a year, some provided by the Western Association of the Order of Malta, the remainder from donations, largely from Order of Malta members.

Stewardship of those funds is important. "We stretch that shoestring as tight as it can be strung," said John Christian, president of the clinic.

"When this place opened up," Christian said, "we weren't sure we were going to be in existence two years."

But the clinic, formed at the request of then-Bishop Allen H. Vigneron, who had been inspired during a trip to Lourdes with the Order of Malta, has grown.

"The Affordable Care Act has had zero impact on the uninsured and the underinsured," Christian said. "I suspect we see folks who are underinsured who have bare bones coverage, but they get better care here."

"And they can get care," added Louis Meunier, who serves as clinic administrator.

That care is seen by Lorenzana, the medical director, in the spirit of St. Teresa, as doing the work of the "hands and feet of our Lord."

"I see people being ministered to," Lorenzana said.

Among those dedicated to this ministering is Dr. Thomas Wallace, a neurologist who was approached about volunteering at the clinic by a fellow parishioner at St. Theresa Parish in Oakland.

In addition to his hours in the clinic, Wallace has twice been part of the order's annual journey to Lourdes with the sick.

He's planning to go a third time this May. "I'm eager to get there," he said.

He finds the work at the clinic rewarding: no insurance and no computers.

Wallace will become a member of the Order of Malta this spring.

The clinic continues to invite doctors to volunteer, and is forging partnerships with nursing and nurse practitioner programs at Samuel Merritt University and the University of California San Francisco. The clinic has become a rotation for Kaiser's resident physicians.

An offshoot of the clinic is the monthly podiatry clinic at the St. Vincent de Paul Center at 23rd Street and San Pablo Avenue. People who spend their days, and sometimes, nights, on their feet have been appreciative.

The Malta Clinic, at 21st and Harrison streets, is busy, even during non-clinic hours when specialty appointments are made. Cardinal Burke's visit on a Sunday may have been its first weekend opening.

After blessing a statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary, which had been brought from Lourdes, Cardinal Burke was escorted next door to the even tinier Pope Francis Legal Clinic, where director Tom Greerty, who is also a member of the Order of Malta, showed the cardinal the consultation room, where attorneys have been meeting with clients at no charge, two days a week since last summer.

Greerty showed the cardinal a copy of the advance directive for medical care, which the attorneys have been distributing, calling it a major issue of our time.

The cardinal blessed a crucifix, which had been given to the legal clinic by Father Mockel, and offered a blessing to the assembled attorneys.

After attending a reception in his honor at the Cathedral Event Center, in which more than 100 people lined up for blessings and short conversations, the cardinal, in gold vestments and jeweled miter, presided at Benediction and Exposition of the Blessed Sacrament in the cathedral.