Hidden Hurt: Desperate for medical care, the uninsured flock by the hundreds to a remote corner of Virginia for the chance to see a doctor

By Mary Otto
Sunday, November 9, 2008

Pain hides in these green mountains. Diseased hearts and clouded lungs, aching teeth and anxious minds.

But for three days a year, more than 800 volunteer doctors, dentists, nurses and other health-care workers come from all over Virginia and beyond to this isolated place in Appalachia to provide free medical care to those who cannot afford it. Sick and hurting people by the hundreds gather and wait for the gates of the Wise County Fairgrounds to swing open -- their presence a testament to the country's health-care crisis.

Every year now, it happens like this. On a Thursday afternoon in late July, trucks filled with thousands of dollars' worth of medical supplies and equipment wind through coal country and up the steep roads to the tip of southwest Virginia, just a few miles from the Kentucky border. Then a small army of health-care professionals, along with hundreds of community volunteers, get to work. In tents, in barns, in exhibition halls, they use clotheslines, hospital sheets and medical clamps to separate examination rooms, surgeries, a vast open-air dental clinic, a laboratory, eye and ear clinics and a pharmacy. Moving with swift efficiency, following a model used to respond to natural disasters, they create a vast field hospital out of thin air in just a few hours.

By sunset outside the gates of the fairground, a field that normally serves as the parking lot is filling up with people -- elderly men and women, young laborers, worn-out coal miners, extended families -- setting up camp. "This is a gift from God," says Joyce Waddell as her daughter and small grandchildren settle in for the night.

An elderly woman limps across the field to the row of portable toilets. A young man lights an oil lantern in the darkening sky.

A tall, sinewy, razor-straight man dressed in khaki walks through the campsites, up the dusty road. He's Stan Brock, the British-born adventurer who sets this mammoth effort in motion each year through his nonprofit Remote Area Medical Volunteer Corps. The clinic is now in its ninth year at Wise, and a number of the campers recognize Brock. They wave and nod in gratitude. "The original Crocodile Hunter," says Mike Mullins, a Clintwood, Va., retiree, nearly blind, who is waiting for eye care. "I think the world of him."

Now in his 70s, Brock gained fame four decades ago as the anaconda-wrestling co-star of the popular television series "Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom." But he has spent the last 23 years flying to some of the poorest places on the planet, bringing free medical care to those who desperately need it. And people rely on that care in rural Virginia, just a day's drive from the U.S. Capitol, he says, just as much as they do in Africa or Latin America.

"The need is massive," Brock says. "We pick up everything from brain tumors to lung cancer to cervical cancer to breast cancer."

Brock takes great pride in the economy and efficiency of the Wise clinic, which costs just $26,000 this year because the doctors, dentists, optometrists, nurses and other workers donate their time. But even as the clinic saves lives and alleviates suffering, Brock knows it amounts to slapping a Band-Aid on a gaping wound. There are approximately 47 million Americans who lack health insurance and another 25 million who are underinsured, according to the Commonwealth Fund, a New York-based foundation that supports research on health-care issues. Hospitals on county fairgrounds, Brock says, are not the answer.

Brock found the inspiration for a volunteer medical relief corps dedicated to bringing free care to the isolated and impoverished long before his "Wild Kingdom" days, during a 15-year sojourn in the savannahs and rain forests of South America, running a huge cattle ranch in the former British colony of British Guiana.

Working and living among the Wapishana Indians, Brock says, he witnessed epidemics of influenza, measles and whooping cough sweep through the communities. Common and treatable in the urban areas from which they spread, the diseases devastated the Wapishana, who had no resistance to them and no traditional remedies. When he left South America in 1968 to join "Wild Kingdom," Brock promised himself he would return someday with a volunteer medical corps.

After his stint on the show ended in 1971, Brock continued to work in television and film for more than a decade before founding the Remote Area Medical Volunteer Corps in 1985. Since then, Brock's organization has conducted more than 540 medical relief missions worldwide with little fanfare and limited funds. About a quarter of the group's $300,000 budget for the past year came from grants from private foundations, and the rest from public donations.

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