Scott Ross had prayed outside this clinic, along with so many fellow Catholics who gathered weekly, for years, to petition God and the government for an end to the procedures inside that office.
Then Ross’s prayers seemed to have been answered. And that was the first time he went from praying outside the abortion clinic, to walking in.
“It was eerie coming in here the first time, before anything had changed,” he said.
A lot has changed now. Amethyst Health Center for Women, formerly Manassas’s and Prince William County’s only abortion clinic, closed its doors last year when the owner retired at age 76. She sold the clinic, and said she believed at the time that the buyer was investing in medical offices. It turned out to be the BVM Foundation — short for Blessed Virgin Mary — a Catholic organization that first directed the calls from women seeking abortions to an antiabortion crisis pregnancy center, then handed off the clinic to Catholic Charities of the Diocese of Arlington.
Now, these few rooms in a Manassas office strip park are a medical clinic again. This time, Ross, the family medicine doctor who once was praying outside, is the one providing the medical care.
That care does not include abortions, or any other gynecology or pregnancy-related services at the Mother of Mercy Free Medical Clinic. The crisis pregnancy center, long next door to the abortion clinic, closed down this month.
This is now a general-purpose health clinic for uninsured patients in Northern Virginia, most of whom have no idea that the space used to house an abortion clinic.
But the nurses and translators — who volunteer their time to make the entirely free clinic operate — know. “Everyone was so keenly aware of that, which so energized the community,” Ross said. “Something good would be coming forth from a place where evil had occurred.”
Abortion rights advocates in Virginia said they still feel the loss of the Amethyst center, which served 1,200 women a year.
Women in Manassas and Prince William now turn to abortion clinics in Falls Church and Alexandria, or as far as Charlottesville, Richmond and the District, depending on their needs, said Tarina Keene, executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice Virginia.
“If you’re a woman who lacks transportation, or somebody who works an hourly job, or maybe you’re a victim of domestic violence, or you have children and you have to pay for child care, these are real roadblocks,” she said.
Keene said she isn’t opposed to the Catholic clinic, although she said she was deeply troubled by what she views as deceptive tactics by the BVM Foundation, which bought the space when Amethyst closed. In a 2016 interview, the abortion clinic’s owner said she thought she was selling it to a group of medical office investors. After the deal was done, callers to the clinic were immediately transferred to the antiabortion crisis pregnancy center next store, the previous owner said.
“I advocate every day for health care — we want to see more people having access to health care. I think when you can do that, there’s nothing better,” Keene said about the new clinic. “While a free clinic is always good for people who have no health care or no options at all, this doesn’t necessarily help some of the most vulnerable women in the Manassas and Prince William area.”
To Arlina Flores-Roxas, the new clinic was just what she needed last week. Her hands have been bothering her since she moved to the United States from the Philippines to take care of her elderly parents here. The stiffness got so bad that she quit her job as a janitor at Walmart, she said. But without health insurance, she avoided seeing a doctor.
Now, the 60-year-old widow came to the clinic nearly whimpering. “I feel so much pain. It’s so painful.”
She tried to form a fist, and couldn’t clench her fingers.
“You’ve already got some joint damage from the arthritis,” volunteer nurse practitioner Lori McLean told her. “You’ve never had a doctor work you up for this? I’m going to order some bloodwork.”
Flores-Roxas protested. “It costs me too much.”
“That’s okay. It’ll be taken care of,” McLean said, and Flores-Roxas’s face lit up. “Oh, thank you so much,” she said. On her way out the door, she gave McLean a hug.
Ross, who is a doctor for Novant Health during the rest of the week, serves as medical director at the new Catholic Charities clinic, which opened this month and operates only on Wednesday nights. He said he hopes to recruit more volunteer providers so that the clinic can operate more than four hours a week, and to strike more agreements with neighboring medical providers so that patients who need more help than what the free clinic can provide can access care.
“The needs are huge,” he said. “We are starting as a drop in the bucket. There are recent immigrants. There are uninsured workers. Most of our families are hard-working people. Either they’re priced out of insurance, or insurance isn’t available.”
Looking at two Catholic clinics in other cities as models, Ross envisions using this space for more of Catholic Charities’ services, so that a patient might get not only medical care but also food pantry donations or mental health counseling or diabetic meal coaching — all under the same roof.
He said he has been startled, in the first two weeks of the clinic’s operation, how many patients are diabetic — about half the adults who come in for exams are dealing with poorly treated diabetes, he said.
That’s the complaint of Juan Perez, 41. He ran out of the medicines prescribed for his diabetes and hypertension 15 days ago, and now he’s getting dizzy.
He winces when a nurse pricks his finger to test his blood sugar: “102. That’s good,” she says, and his face turns to relief. “Wow. I was worried about that,” he says in Spanish to Liliana Ramirez-Venegas, who has accompanied him to his exam as a translator.
Ramirez-Venegas, a teacher who immigrated from Colombia just like Perez, said she heard about this clinic at her parish and wanted to help out. She tells Perez that all staff members are volunteers. Again, he says, “Wow.”
Ross rushes past. Between examining a woman with a nasty undiagnosed skin condition that’s causing open sores up and down her torso, and checking on a concerned father of eight children who lost his job and the function in his foot when a hydraulic hammer fell on him, the doctor pauses to quote the verse from Scripture that he thinks about in this place.
It’s from Revelation: “Behold, I make all things new.”
Catholic activists used to lobby the Manassas city government to take away this property’s medical zoning so the abortion clinic could not operate; now it’s that zoning that lets Ross operate in the same space. He walks into the room and approaches a patient sitting on the medical exam table — one of the same exam tables that made him shudder the first time he saw them. He doesn’t get chills now, using the same equipment.