“If you’re sick, you know what? We’ll help you.”
That’s the way Dr. Kathleen Doyle summarizes the purpose of Portage’s St. Vincent de Paul free clinic, which she and her husband, Dr. Paul Slavik, founded seven years ago.
It’s also the way the clinic’s 20 volunteers — and, in all likelihood, the 12,000-plus patients who have sought care at the clinic since its November 2010 inception — would describe the culture in the lower-level space at Wilz Drug and Home Health Care, 140 E. Cook St.
Slavik and Doyle are the Portage Daily Register’s Anne Zimmerman Persons of the Year. They were chosen, by Daily Register staff consensus, from 13 nominees, all of whom met the key criteria for the honor — making a vital difference in the life of Portage.
This is the second time in the award’s 17-year history that a married couple have been co-recipients of the honor. (Rich and Cheryl Heimerl were tabbed in 2005.)
And, according to Slavik, it’s Doyle who deserves most of the accolades.
“Every Wednesday,” he said, “I wake up and say, ‘I’m not going to the free clinic today.’ And she says, ‘Yes, you are.’”
In 2010, both retired within months of each other, after decades of practicing in the Portage’s Dean clinic — Doyle as a pediatrician, Slavik as an internal medicine specialist.
At about that time, Portage community members were holding earnest discussions as to whether there was a need for a free clinic in Portage, and if so, how such a clinic could get up and running without government funds.
Slavik said Doyle took the initiative to visit the Good Neighbor Clinic of Sauk Prairie, founded in 1999 by Dr. Haakon Carlson. At the time of Doyle’s visit, the Good Neighbor Clinic was operating out of the St. Vincent de Paul Resource Center.
At first, Slavik said, he was skeptical as to whether there would be any demand for free medical care in Portage.
As of the end of 2017, the clinic has seen more than 12,000 patients since its inauguration.
Doyle said she had thought most of the patients would be children — and the clinic does, indeed, see people of all ages.
But the largest group of patients is older adults, many of them with chronic conditions such as diabetes or high blood pressure.
Slavik said many of them are uninsured or under-insured. Many have one or more jobs; in some cases, they’re juggling multiple part-time jobs, and don’t work enough hours at a single employer to qualify for employer-provided coverage.
And, many of the patients have health insurance, but they have any number of different reasons for using the free clinic — because their copayments or deductibles are prohibitively high, because they can’t get in to see their primary care provider in a timely manner, or because they like the volunteer doctors, nurses, nurse practitioners, physical therapists and other caregivers who volunteer at the clinic.
Dr. Ira Katzenberg, who volunteers with the clinic, observed, “There are so many people, and the system doesn’t serve the public.”
But anybody who needs a doctor’s care can get it at the clinic from 8 a.m. to noon on Wednesdays. No appointments are necessary. There’s no charge, although donations are gratefully accepted.
Doyle said the clinic’s daily patient load averages between 40 and 50, though that can vary widely from Wednesday to Wednesday.
“It’s cold-dependent, weather-dependent and time-of-year dependent,” she said.
However, it’s not unusual to find numerous people waiting by the door before the clinic opens, she said.
Dr. Roxanne Richards, who specializes in emergency medicine, is a longtime clinic volunteer. She describes the relationship between Slavik, Doyle and all the volunteer practitioners as similar to that of any well-run medical facility.
“It’s been a wonderful experience working with them,” she said. “We’re colleagues.”
The clinic didn’t always have the seven private exam rooms it has now.
In November 2010, Doyle and Slavik began seeing patients in the back of Portage’s St. Vincent de Paul store, 1311 W. Wisconsin St. A pair of dressing rooms were converted, on Wednesdays, to examining rooms. One had a child-size table for pediatric care; the other had, just outside the door, an ordinary bathroom scale.
The clinic wasn’t there for long. Wilz Drug offered its lower-level space — rent and utilities included — within months.
At first, examination areas were separated by movable walls. Then volunteers built the exam rooms, and furnished them with donated equipment.
Slavik tells the story of how he was pictured in the Daily Register putting up drywall for the exam rooms, and a reader — teasing him about his lack of training and background in the building trades — immediately rounded up volunteers to finish the work.
That’s just one example, he said, of people stepping up for the clinic.
Numerous others have contributed, as have health care facilities — including Slavik and Doyle’s former clinic, which offers kits for such things as urine tests and pregnancy tests.
Then there’s the anonymous donor who, is 2011, volunteered to pay for high-speed Internet service, so the clinic can connect patients with drug companies’ programs for free or discounted medication.
There are some services the clinic cannot perform. None of the volunteer providers is certified in gynecology, obstetrics or prenatal care. Narcotics are not prescribed, nor are they kept on the premises.
But the clinic does offer services not available in every free clinic, including foot care, physical therapy and diabetes education.
Doyle and Slavik almost never take time off, though they do set aside two weeks every year to visit their son and his family in Vermont.
And Doyle is the first to admit the work isn’t always easy or pleasant.
“We have some ornery patients,” she said, “and you just have to remind them that this is a free clinic, and you can’t be ornery. You should be nice, and you should say thank you.”
But in nearly the same sentence, this is how Doyle sums up what keeps her going: “Patients. Being needed. This is our community.”