How volunteering with Remote Area Medical (RAM) impacted me

Some women might have spent their 50th birthday celebrating with friends or backpacking the Himalayas. Not me. When I heard that Remote Area Medical (RAM) in Athens, Tennessee was operating over my birthday weekend, I signed up to be a volunteer. The event would provide free medical care for the medically needy in the Athens vicinity. My area was "General Support". Organizers placed me in the vision area of the event. 

RAM first came to my attention through a United Methodist Church member. She gave me a general idea of the medical care and services provided through Remote Area Medical. A few years ago, I had the opportunity to cover the red carpet premier in Knoxville of the documentary of Remote Area Medical. Stan Brock, founder of RAM spoke. He told his story of being injured while living in Guyana. Medical care was a 26 mile journey. The impact of that experience led him to found an organization that would provide free medical care to those who need it most.

Although Stan Brock had Guyana in mind originally, the work of the organization spread globally. The plight of the medically needy in East Tennessee was brought up. RAM set up an operation and the response was overwhelming. The Remote Area Medical in Athens expedition was hosted by the Lion's Club and staffed by a small army of volunteers. I am proud to have been one of the people who helped. Working the event impacted me in ways that are still being realized.

First, some background on the day.

According to this live Facebook video stream, Remote Area Medical in Athens handed out tickets at 3:00 am each day. People could camp out in the parking lot beginning on Friday for Saturday tickets and on Saturday afternoon to try for a ticket on Sunday. The screenshot to the left details the number of people seen and the value in services. What it doesn't tell you is the story of how volunteering at a Remote Area Medical event impacted me or the people at the event.

Each person that came through the door has his or her own story. The people that I saw were as varied as you can imagine. Patients included people who do and do not have job. There were children, teens, college students and adults, elderly, able-bodied and those who required assistance. The crowd was white, black, Hispanic and more For the most part, kids were not whiny. They each (of the ones that I saw) seemed to understand that this was something special and seemed well behaved.

Anxiety that you sometimes find in a doctor's waiting room was missing. Each person seemed relieved to receive and eye exam and glasses when needed. The atmosphere was attentive, jovial even.

But this wasn't your average waiting room. Student chairs took the place of more comfortable seats. There were no neatly stacked piles of magazines or soft music playing in the background. That was all replaced with quiet conversations. People connected with each other and made small talk.

RAM organizers had compassion on the crowd in other ways. At least twice I saw a volunteer come around to ask if the patients needed a snack or bottle of water. Other bottles of water were available on a nearby table for anyone who might need or want one.

Volunteering impacted me in a couple of different ways. Seeing people that I know who are patients or volunteers is both reassuring and unsettling. It's always a warm moment to see a familiar face and bright smile. Yet, the moment is bittersweet when I see a friend who may be hurting and unable to see a doctor regularly because of  (insert reason here).

The irony struck me (not for the first time) that access to a doctor depends on a myriad of factors. Growing up without health insurance meant going to the doctor as infrequently as possible, so I understand what my friends are going through. I also see that access to medical care is having an employer who offers insurance, not falling through the cracks of TennCare, having gas in the car and being able to take off from work. Remove any one of these factors and access to a doctor becomes perilous.

Another way that volunteering with Remote Area Medical impacted me is that it opened my eyes to how generous people really are. We hear so much negativity that it's easy to overlook the good. There were two hundred people volunteering at Remote  Area Medical in Athens. Some came from Memphis, Illinois and as far away as New Jersey. Many of these folks probably couldn't have found Athens on the map before arriving here. Some drove to Tennessee and others flew all gave time and some came at great personal expense. It encourages me to know people care about our small town.

Their actions remind me of how problems can be solved and lives made better when we all pull together. I think perhaps that was my biggest takeaway of all.

This video clip is commentary of my experience at Remote Area Medical in Athens is below. It will be live on Monday, July 10 at noon Eastern. Please check back or visit my YouTube Channel here to watch it.