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Volunteers in Medicine: Health care for those in need

There is an underbelly to the Berkshires that needs help with some fundamental issues of everyday life, like health care. Volunteers in Medicine is here to help.

Great Barrington — Volunteers in Medicine (VIM) celebrated its tenth anniversary in the Berkshires last year. The nonprofit organization provides health care services to uninsured and underinsured adults. Since VIM opened its doors in Berkshire County, about 2,300 patients have been treated in more than 25,000 individual visits.

This translates into well over $1 million in medical services each year at market rates. VIM’s patients are people whose income is under 300 percent of the federal poverty level, which is about $35,000 for an individual and $72,000 for a family of four. Luckily for the many people who need their services, VIM has an extremely active board that has raised more than $5 million in donations since it began.

Although volunteers are the backbone of the organization, there is a 10-person staff that works with about 140 volunteers. There is a full-time nurse practitioner, three other paid clinical staff members, and support staff. All other clinical services are offered by volunteers.

Margot Rockefeller, Dental Care Coordinator, unwrapping a new dental chair with Dental Assistant Alex Staropoli.
Margot Rockefeller, Dental Care Coordinator, unwrapping a new dental chair with Dental Assistant Alex Staropoli.

About a third of the volunteers are clinicians, such as physicians, nurses, nurse practitioners, medical assistants, dentists, dental assistants, and the like. There also are the services of an optometrist, nutritionist, massage therapist, acupuncturist, psychiatrist, psychologist, other mental health counselors, and social workers. And then there are administrative volunteers, such as receptionists, fund raisers, and those who do outreach and communication.

Some clinicians work a minimum of one shift per month, but many work once every week. Fundraising volunteers may not be needed for a stretch of time, and then shift into overload when necessary. As Susan Minnich, Volunteer Coordinator, sums it up, “It’s hard to generalize.”

VIM sees its patients by appointments. Some days are quieter than others. On a recent day when I interviewed the Volunteer Coordinator, there had been a medical session, a dental session, one on nutrition, one on mental health, and one on massage therapy.

Recently, VIM initiated a new concept, shared medical appointments, for which it received a large grant from the Massachusetts Medical Society and Alliance Charitable Foundation. Their first shared medical appointment group was with men who shared high blood pressure problems. The second is a set of Latino women with weight issues.

Each participant got appropriate primary care checkups before the program began. The groups met for instruction on stress reduction, how to cook and eat, and on exercise regimes. Six Spanish-speaking women meet at the clinic twice a month, receiving an in-depth education in healthy eating, stress reduction, and weight management.

Ilana Steinauer, Clinical Care Coordinator for VIM, presents a useful case study of volunteers. In 2006 she volunteered at VIM while she was trying to decide what to study in graduate school, and after volunteering at VIM, she realized she wanted to become a nurse-practitioner. And so she did, completing a three-year program at Simmons College in 2011.

She returned to VIM, this time as its clinical leader. One of the aspects of VIM that most appeals to Steinauer is that what happens at VIM is all about the patient. “We’re all here for the same thing — to provide quality, compassionate care. The most vulnerable population should be the one with the most attention because in the long run it saves the community a lot of money.” She is well aware that uncontrolled illness creates high medical bills in the long run. And that can be alleviated with the services of an organization like VIM.

Art Peisner is the chairman of VIM’s board of trustees. He has been involved with VIM almost since its inception, drawn into the organization by his friends Len and Marion Simon, who spearheaded VIM’s organization. Peisner admits he knew nothing about health care when he joined up with VIM. “There were enough people around who had health care experience,” he says, “and they needed people with business experience.” He’s never looked back. “I’ve been at VIM longer than any other job I’ve had. I’m more engaged and invested than ever before, and have learned a lot more.”

Peisner’s work experience prior to VIM included 25 years in the toy and hobby industry, and as a management consultant in the Detroit area. He says he spends about ten hours a week on VIM business, but quickly acknowledges that his wife says it’s more like 20 hours per week.

Arthur M. Peisner, left, chairman of the VIM Board of Trustees; Robert Olsen, Office Manager, and Jessie Schoonmaker, Treasurer, Board of Trustees with architectural drawings in front of the building.
Arthur M. Peisner, left, chairman of the VIM Board of Trustees; Robert Olsen, Office Manager, and Jessie Schoonmaker, Treasurer, Board of Trustees with architectural drawings of the expanded VIM facilities on South Street in Great Barrington, Mass.

Peisner believes VIM can continue to grow in its current location on the south side of Great Barrington. “In fact,” he says, “we are going to expand. More services leads to more visits and more visits necessitates more rooms. For example, they will need a full room for massage and acupuncture.

Susan Minnich, Volunteer Coordinator, has been with VIM since its opening in 2004. She schedules the volunteers for the same shifts with the same volunteers to help build community amongst them. “We find this helps us retain volunteers,” she says.

Minnich explains that people volunteer at VIM for a variety of reasons. In some cases, volunteers are newcomers to the Berkshires, and they use VIM as an opportunity to meet like-minded people. Others are retired but want to continue to use their skills. Still others use the volunteer work to build up their resumes. And there are many who simply want to give back to their community.

So who volunteers? Well, it doesn’t matter if you’re afraid of the sight of blood because there are many tasks at VIM that are “blood free,” so relax. VIM provides an atmosphere where time is not an issue. Clinicians can spend anywhere from 30-60 minutes with a patient, a luxury few of us experience. Steinauer says that by providing so much time for the patient, practitioners can get to the root of so many health problems. “If you’re treating an obese woman and trying to prevent diabetes, you have to help heal the emotional parts of her life that prevent her from losing weight.”

There are 15 members of the VIM board, including physicians and community members. There is no executive director so board members tend to be more involved with VIM’s activities than is typical with volunteer organizations. Board members fulfill a wide variety of activities, including community outreach and fundraising. Others provide professional services.

For example, Matt Mandel, a physician from Stockbridge and one of VIM’s founders, was named Senior Volunteer Physician of the Year by the Massachusetts Medical Society in 2012, and the following year he won an award from the American Medical Association for his work at VIM.

Steinauer explains that VIM approaches health care in a holistic manner. When a patient comes in with pain, she will be treated for that along with a combination of other services they provide, such as acupuncture, massage, and mental health. She may need to see a nutritionist because part of her pain is due to her weight. She might have to see a dentist for dental pain. If she’s never had an eye appointment, she’ll get one. To create this holistic health care model, VIM is constantly trying to offer more services on a more frequent basis.

VIM’s patients include a lot of seasonal farm workers both at small farms and from a lot of horse farms. Dairy farms provide the largest number of patients, but people who work at non-dairy farms, restaurants, and landscaping services also use VIM’s services. Steinauer reports that service workers make up the bulk of VIM’s patients.

The most common health problems presented at VIM relate to preventative screening and annual physicals to treat work-related injuries, family planning, obesity, pre-diabetes, hypertension, and chronic illnesses.

VIM collaborates with a number of organizations, including Berkshire South, the hospital system throughout the county, the Brien Center, the Elizabeth Freeman Center, Construct, and the Berkshire Community Action Council.

The most popular image of the Berkshires is a seductively beautiful and restful place to enjoy sensational scenery and savor delicious food. But there is an underbelly to the Berkshires that needs help with some fundamental issues of everyday life. Luckily for those without the means to pay for satisfactory medical care, Volunteers in Medicine is here to help. VIM is a charitable organization that provides a genuine service to people who need help and an important psychic service to those who provide the assistance.

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