08/22/11 — WATCH calling for help

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WATCH calling for help

By Phyllis Moore
Published in News on August 22, 2011 1:46 PM

WATCH, or Wayne Action Teams for Community Health, is in need of volunteers.

The service, which sponsors a medical van that canvasses the county each week providing health care for people without insurance, has grown since it was first introduced a decade ago, with more and more people seeking help as the economy has soured and people have lost jobs and coverage.

Bobby Fletcher is a WATCH volunteer. Originally from Ohio, she sought out ways to volunteer in the community after moving to Wayne County. At first, she worked at the hospital, then she learned that WATCH needed help.

"I asked if I could work four or five hours on the van," Ms. Fletcher said. "At that time, it was not busy at all, like eight years ago. Then it got very, very busy and different things that the receptionist had to do like the files, phones and the patients and other things."

A nurse in her younger days, Ms. Fletcher said she enjoys the clinic setting, greeting and talking with patients as they arrived for their appointments.

"It's a very complete service, blood work is done, I think, on almost everybody, which is very good," she said. "They do refer patients. They have a dermatologist that comes in to see people. It's a great program; you can't deny that. So many cities I don't think have anything like this."

But since hard economic times arrived, the pool of volunteers for the program has shrunk.

"We're having a harder time getting volunteers," said Kathy Johnson, a nurse practitioner with WATCH. "I think people are busy."

The latest figures show 903 new patients being seen by WATCH over the past year and 931 volunteer hours. To date, some 12,842 volunteers have been logged by WATCH in its 11 years of service.

The biggest contribution of a volunteer is helping patients feel comfortable, Ms. Johnson said. While their role might be to pull charts, update records and make appointments, the services they provide go way beyond that.

"I think the volunteers have been and continue to be such an asset ... a lot of people don't know what they're getting into the first time they come, so they're a little hesitant and it just makes them feel welcome."

While most of the volunteers are senior citizens, others also have recognized the need. Physicians have donated their time and other retirees have seen the benefit of supporting the program.

Gwyn Wilson, former director of the county Department of Social Services, served on the WATCH board at its outset and from there decided to volunteer herself.

"I was always interested in this area of health care," she said. "One of the concerns that I had even (while working with DSS) was that there were people that were suffering we had to turn away. It was really sad for people to have medical needs that we couldn't help with."

In the program's early days, volunteers were easier to come by, Ms. Wilson said. But over the years, the number of people willing or able to give of their time has dwindled.

Ms. Wilson said many of the people now being seen by WATCH are coming in for the first time.

"We see a lot of people that have not had health services," she said. "They come in, and they're really at the end of the medical condition when they come to us. It breaks my heart. It could have been treated earlier if they had."

WATCH has had opportunities to do more preventive care, especially in the areas of diabetes and hypertension, helping patients control conditions before the illnesses become too advanced. Efforts have also been made to provide medications.

"I think it's just providing communities with hope," Ms. Wilson said. "We're in the same struggle with lack of funding as everyone else."

The program has been fortunate, not only to have community support, but also to have Sissy Lee-Elmore, executive director, writing grants, a successful annual golf tournament and other funding keeping WATCH afloat.

One cost the program doesn't have to absorb, though, is volunteers.

And it's rewarding, which is why Ms. Fletcher has devoted eight years of service and Ms. Wilson nearly 11 years.

"It's been a blessing to me because I like staying connected with people," Ms. Wilson said. "It's not that people don't care. But when we don't know what's going on with other people, it's really easy not to see it."

For information on the program, or to learn how to volunteer, call the volunteer services office at Wayne Memorial Hospital at 731-6353.