COURT HOUSE – In 2012, doctors told Melissa Grace she had a rare skin infection called MRSA (Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus).
Three years later, Grace, now 28, of Dennisville, lost her job and health insurance. A friend encouraged her to make an appointment with the Volunteers in Medicine Free Clinics of So. Jersey (VIM). VIM provides free medical care to uninsured and underinsured patients.
“She was frustrated at not being able to hold down a job because of her health, and not being able to take care of her health for lack of money,” said clinic Executive Director Jackie Meiluta.
Volunteers at the nonprofit clinic told Grace she had been misdiagnosed, and then informed her she had Hidradenitis Suppurativa, a chronic skin condition, since 2007.
“The American healthcare system had done her no favors,” Meiluta said. “She had been passed along, misdiagnosed, not treated with empathy and human kindness. She walked in the door expecting more of the same.”
VIM also diagnosed her with anemia and Type 2 Diabetes.
Grace said they sent her to the emergency room the same day they took a blood sample because her count was “dangerously low.”
VIM also discovered a cantaloupe-sized ovarian cyst, which turned out to be noncancerous.
"They didn't know if it was pressing on any vital organs," Grace told the Herald in 2016. "They sent me to a specialist at Cooper University Hospital who said it needed to come out right away. They were shocked that I had no symptoms."
Grace said VIM helped her get Medicaid that year so she could see a primary care doctor.
“They helped me every step of the way,” Grace said. “The staff is there because they want to be, not because they receive a large paycheck or get tons of recognition for their work.”
When Grace finally got disability this year for the skin condition and a bulging disc in her back, she had to tell VIM she would be insured by Medicare.
“The hardest thing I’ve had to deal with is informing all of my doctors and specialists about the change in my insurance,” she said.
Coverage came with an award of past-due disability benefits of $11,000. In June, Grace donated $1,000 of that award to VIM as “her way of paying it forward,” Meiluta said.
Meiluta said the donation will fund treatment for two patients. Comprehensive care, services like flu shots, checkups, medication, and advocacy, costs about $500 a patient at VIM, she said.
“I know the money will be put to good use,” Grace said.
VIM is funded by donations from community members, churches, and the LIONS Club, Meiluta said. Other sources of income are the Court House thrift shop as well as annual grants from the Department of Health and Human Services.
The Court House clinic opened in 2002 and is one of over 100 VIM clinics nationwide. Meiluta said about 80 volunteers at the clinic see about 500 patients a year.
Volunteers range from licensed nurses and doctors to personnel manning phones and completing charts, she said.
Grace said VIM taught her how to stand up for herself and not to back down when told “no.”
“When I first went there, I was embarrassed about my medical skin condition,” Grace said. “I was shy and didn’t really know how to communicate with doctors and nurses to explain things.”
Meiluta said VIM helped Grace become an advocate for herself.
“She was such a special case of someone who blossomed and transformed,” Meiluta said.
Grace said VIM still keeps in touch with her. Barbara Harvey, who was Grace’s nurse, calls her monthly.
“Not all doctor offices do that,” Grace said.
At VIM’s annual fundraiser Sept. 13, Grace’s donation will count as a sponsorship towards VIM’s $50,000 goal.
“I’ll never be able to pay VIM back for all they did for me,” Grace said. “I’ve made friends there for life. Dr. Crowley, Barbara, Anne Marie, Dr. Middleton and his wife, and Jackie Meiluta.
“They all played a huge factor in saving my life and setting me on the right path to getting the help I needed,” Grace said.
To contact Taylor Henry, email firstname.lastname@example.org.