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2,000 attend free health clinic at D.C. convention center

By Kevin Sieff
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 5, 2010; B01

Back from the wilds of Virginia, where he hunts black bears with a bow and arrow and squirrels with a shotgun, John Hawkins was sitting in the Walter E. Washington Convention Center, shaking in his work boots.

The man who spent the past two decades in a log cabin was about to see a doctor the first time in 21 years.

"I hate this," he said Wednesday afternoon, squirming in his chair. "I gotta get back to the mountains."

But Hawkins fought the urge to flee, waiting nervously for his number to be called. The large-scale free clinic, the first of its kind in the District, was his best shot at free medical care. Although he lives only three hours outside Washington, he hadn't been inside the Capital Beltway for more than 20 years.

A part-time carpenter, Hawkins doesn't have health insurance, like the other nearly 2,000 patients who converged on the convention center Wednesday. By 2 p.m., more than 700 people had been treated, and lines grew longer. The treatment was underwritten by 44,000 donors who contributed $300,000.

Many of the patients traded disheartening stories while waiting in line: The man who was laid off last year and couldn't afford his son's back-to-school physical exam. The uninsured woman from Leesburg who hid her puppy in a small canvas bag and murmured: "When you're 82, you have to have something wrong with you. I just don't know what I have."

For Hawkins, the opportunity couldn't have come at a better time.

A few months ago, when he was hunting outside his cabin near Edinburg, he noticed a few abscesses on his right leg. Every day, more sores appeared, purple bruises the size of hockey pucks. "It got to the point where I could barely move," he said.

On Wednesday, Hawkins, the bear hunter and connoisseur of filleted squirrel, looked at his bruised legs and said, "God, I hope I don't have cancer."

Volunteers screened him for prostate cancer, checked his cholesterol and recorded his blood pressure. He got an electrocardiogram and jumped as the nurse's hands touched his chest. "They were cold as icebergs!" he said.

Finally, he waited for the doctor to look at his legs, plotting his escape. "Too many people," he said. "Too much noise."

In Hawkins's calculus, solitude trumps company, doctors are crooks and health-care reform is little more than a topic of conversation on Capitol Hill.

"Many people here say, 'I never thought I'd have to go to a convention center for medical treatment,' " said Nicole Lamoureux, executive director of the National Association of Free Clinics, which organized the event. Lamoureux said she was warned that because only 10 percent of District residents are uninsured, Wednesday's event would be less popular than free clinics in other cities.

Doctors, nurses, translators and a raucous welcome committee tried frantically to keep up with the unexpected demand.

For Hawkins, whose bushy hair curled around his camouflaged hat, the event's popularity meant more waiting, more wondering and "more time in this dang city."

"Did they call my number? Did you hear it? I can't hear it," he asked his brothers Sean and Paul, both from the Washington area, who accompanied him to the clinic.

"Still no," Sean said for the third time.

Hawkins tapped his work boots and nervously curled his moustache.

Finally, it was his turn. He got up, took a deep breath and walked slowly to the makeshift doctor's office, a small swath of the convention center floor, cordoned off by a blue curtain.

"God, I hope this is nothing," Hawkins said. He wants to be healthy come Sept. 4, the first day of Virginia's squirrel hunting season.

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