Harrison County

Free clinic in Biloxi fighting to keep its doors open for patients

The waiting room at Bethel Free Health Clinic is full on a Tuesday morning.

Dr. Robert Weierman sees one patient after another.

“It’s pathetic what people have to go through to see a doctor today,” said Weierman, a retired spinal surgeon who volunteers his time here. “Medicine has become a business.”

Weierman longs for the days when patients’ health took priority over their ability to pay. He finds solace in volunteering at Bethel. But he worries how long the free clinic, without a steady source of financial support, will be able to keep its doors open.

“I’m hoping we get input from local charity-giving organizations that can help us stay afloat,” he said.

Just keeping the doors open for bare-bones care, he said, costs about $90,000 a year.

The nonprofit organization’s tax records show donations have waned from $230,577 in 2011 to $63,178 in 2015.

Emailing for dollars

Bethel opened after Hurricane Katrina in 2005. It has since moved into a building leased from the Biloxi Housing Authority just west of Keesler Air Force Base. Hours are based on doctor availability, but the clinic tries to see patients at least three mornings a week. Hours are posted weekly on the clinic’s Facebook page. Five doctors volunteer their time.

Weierman, 74, has been volunteering at Bethel for a little more than a year. One of his personal doctors enlisted Weierman’s help after he retired from private practice.

Weierman’s Jesuit education, from high school in New York City through medical school at Georgetown University in Washington, is part of his DNA. The Jesuits believe they serve Christ by helping others. He recently sent an email to his Xavier High School class of 1960, asking for donations so Bethel could buy computers for electronic health records. He also contacted Xavier’s president. Between the school and his classmates, Xavier contributed $8,000 right after Christmas.

He said he’s working on sources of consistent funding. He hopes the clinic can even expand its hours for patients.

“My goal would be to keep that clinic open five days a week,” he said. “The other thing we need is nurses. They have to do the intake on the patients, get their vital signs and information to put on the charts.”

In 2016, he said, the clinic saw more than 1,400 patients, even though many on the Coast do not know it exists.

Patients respected

On Tuesday, he examined Johnell Thomas, 42, of Gulfport. Thomas had lost his job months ago as a line cook in a popular restaurant and was homeless when someone knocked him in the head in mid-December outside a convenience store. Thomas remembers only coming to with a badly injured right ankle.

He said an ambulance took him to a private hospital, where emergency room staff sedated him, popped the bone back in place and put a splint on his leg. He was unable to pay the $300 needed for follow-up care at a private clinic, even though the clinic agreed to accept $150 and bill the rest later.

Weierman examined X-rays that Thomas later had at Memorial Hospital at Gulfport, a public hospital, and confirmed Thomas would need surgery. Otherwise, his leg might never heal right, reducing his chance of working full time. Also, Thomas is suffering from chronic pain and his leg is still in a cast.

Weierman was able to get an appointment for Thomas on Monday at Memorial, which indicated the surgery would be performed there.

Maurice Price of Biloxi discovered Bethel after a stroke in January 2016. The clinic has helped him get physical therapy and supplies the medicine he needs for high blood pressure.

“They just made me feel like I wasn’t another person with their hand held out, trying to get something for nothing,” he said. “They’re doing their job, but it’s not just a job.”

“I know I’m not the only person out there that does, or will, need a hand up,” Price said. “It blew me away that (the clinic) was out there and, based on donations, the doors are open. I was so glad it is there and I do hope they keep the doors open.”

Anita Lee: 228-896-2331, @calee99

How to help

Donations can be mailed to Bethel Free Health Clinic at 1650 Carroll Drive, Biloxi MS 39531.

To volunteer, call 228-594-3640 from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m., Monday through Friday.