By Steve Neill, Of The Catholic Virginian
As the Angels of Mercy Clinic in Norge celebrates its 20th anniversary serving the medical needs of low-income patients, it is entering into a new partnership with the Williamsburg House of Mercy, the outreach ministry of St. Bede Parish.
In that partnership, the clinic’s staff members and volunteers will provide free medical care to homeless people at the House of Mercy one day a month to start. There is the expectation of providing service weekly.
The House of Mercy, located at the Catholic Downtown Center near the heart of Colonial Williamsburg, is in the former St. Bede Parish Center.
“The partnership came about as an evolution from the relationship we’ve had with St. Bede Parish since we started out with Sister Berenice,” said Jeff Black, executive director of the clinic.
His reference to Sister Berenice Eltz, a member of the Sisters of Mercy who is now 101, recalls how she was the inspiration for the clinic which he and his mother, Jeanne Black, started in 1997.
If the clinic was to get off the ground, Sister Berenice, then pastoral associate at St. Bede’s, strongly suggested that the word “mercy” would be somehow used in the name.
Mr. Black, a member of St. Bede Parish, explained that Florence Nightingale worked with the Sisters of Mercy during the Crimean War in France.
“Her nurses were called Angels of Mercy,” Mr. Black said.
The clinic opened in 1997 with Ms. Black, a certified nurse practitioner, as the clinic director. She and her son started with a dream which became a reality. But it was also a leap in faith.
Ms. Black recalls the words of two strong supporters of the clinic, both of whom strongly endorsed its mission, but advised them that there would be struggles.
“You do realize that you’re never going to get rich, but if you’re faithful to the Lord, He will supply all your needs,” said Morgan “Gabby” Galbreath.
“This has really proved true,” Ms. Black said with a laugh.
“The pay is lousy, but the benefits are out of this world,” said Sister Berenice, now in retirement with the Sisters of Mercy in Merion, Pa.
Mr. Black and his wife and two children visited her in early April and found her alert and in good spirits.
Ms. Black remembers the lean years when the clinic first got off the ground.
“Sister Berenice, in the early days, would bring food from the St. Bede food pantry so we could eat,” she said.
“While we tried to take care of the needs of people who had no medical insurance, we didn’t have health insurance for ourselves,” she added.
Even as the clinic became better known in the Williamsburg community, Angels of Mercy still had financial struggles.
When the clinic continued to have a shortfall of $1,000 a month, Sister Berenice approached Mary-Dick Digges, a St. Bede parishioner, and asked “Would you please help?”
“She gave us $1,000 a month for a year and a half until she died Nov. 23, 2001,” Ms. Black said. “No one could say no to Sister Berenice.”
Ms. Black, who grew up in Pennsylvania, was a nurse when she moved to Boston, married and had two sons. When her husband, John Wesley Black Jr., died suddenly in a car accident, she moved to Northern Virginia, enrolled at George Washington University in Washington and graduated as a nurse practitioner.
“When I moved to Williamsburg I was at Eastern State Hospital in the geriatric wing,” she said, adding that this was her first job as a nurse practitioner.
She later took a job in the same capacity at a managed care facility outside Williams- burg.
She had long felt that patients with little or no income were not getting the full attention she felt they deserved.
She remembers she was told by her supervisors at a managed care facility that the goal was to see patients every 10 minutes. But the reality was that most visits lasted 15 minutes.
“I felt I needed to have more time with the individual patient,” Ms. Black said.
It was a stressful time for her. Her older son, John, had graduated from college and was an Army Airborne Ranger with the 82nd Airborne and was sent to Iraq.
“My son had just gone off to war,” she said.
At about the same time her son, Jeff, had graduated from Bethany College in 1994 with a double major in religion and psychology.
Soon mother and son forged ahead and opened what they knew was the only free medical clinic between Williamsburg and Richmond.
It obviously has fulfilled a need since the clinic has seen a 67 percent increase in the number of patients over the past five years.
“We see the partnership with the House of Mercy as the Holy Spirit leading the way,” Ms. Black said.
The clinic, located in an office park at 7151 Richmond Road in Norge, provides approximately 2,500 visits a year for patients with multiple health issues like diabetes, high blood pressure, strokes, cancer and congestive heart failure.
“We see a lot of patients with a pre-diabetes condition and the goal is to prevent them from getting fully developed type 2 diabetes,” Mr. Black said.
In 2015 the Angels of Mercy Clinic became the first safety net clinic in Virginia to achieve accreditation as a diabetes self-management education site.
“Most recently our clinic became Virginia’s first applicant organization to achieve full recognition by the Center for Disease Control as a participant in their national Diabetes Prevention Recognition Program,” Mr. Black said.
Most patients who come through the doors do not have health insurance. Some are under-insured, patients who must meet thousands of dollars in deductibles before the insurance company will pay for the fees of a doctor or hospital.
“We refer patients in need of specialty care to the VCU (Virginia Commonwealth University) Health Systems,” Mr. Black said.
The clinic is open Tuesday and Thursday from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. and on Wednesday from 3 to 7 p.m.
“We actually work full-time because when the clinic is closed, we’re returning phone calls, referring patients and preparing classes for diabetes education, calling medicines into pharmacies, and assisting with the free drug program,” Ms. Black explained.
“We provided more than $150,000 last year in free medications to patients in need through a free pharmacy program,” Mr. Black said, adding that the clinic does all the paperwork.
“We have to fill out the application in order for the patients to receive the medications – and these are expensive medications.”
He and his mother are grateful to doctors and nurses who donate their time to help clinic patients and to the pharmaceutical companies who provide free medicines.
The clinic also receives volunteer help from pre-med students at the College of William and Mary. It’s a fair exchange since the students gain experience in learning how to deal with patients.
“We teach them to take a medical history, do simple lab tests and just have interaction with the patients,” Ms. Black said.
“They’re coming back as doctors,” she added.
Connor Oates, a first year medical student at the University of Maryland, was a volunteer at Angels of Mercy. He says he and other clinic volunteers are “light years ahead of his peers because of their experience here,” Ms. Black said.
Angels of Mercy is operated under guidelines overseen by a board of directors which in recent years has become more ecumenical in its membership.
Bill Teale, a member of Hickory Neck Episcopal Church in Toano, is chairman.
“I am in awe of the dedication of Jeanne and her son Jeff, the staff and volunteers, including over a dozen William and Mary pre-med students,” Mr. Teale said. “The quality of health care the clinic’s patients receive is outstanding.
“It is an honor to serve on their board.”
Ralph Swartz of St. Olaf’s in Norge, who just died April 8, paid for all the clinic’s printing costs for 20 years.
Another major benefactor has been “Gabby” Galbreath, a member of the New Town United Methodist Church in Williamsburg.
“What’s greater is that this was the first time we had strong ecumenical support,” Mr. Black said, citing both Mr. Galbreath’s financial gifts and power of prayer.
“He used to visit the clinic all the time and he prayed with us,” he explained.
“Gabby used his own personal money to help us pay bills when our clinic nearly closed 17 years ago due to lack of funds,” Mr. Black continued. “He also paid off the remaining balance of our clinic’s bank loan in 2001.”
In addition to the Williamsburg Health Foundation, there is help from other Christian congregations.
“St. Bede’s has been the backbone for the last 20 years,” Mr. Black asserted. “But if it weren’t for the Protestant churches and their parishioners, the clinic would not be open today.”