Sarah Marshall walked for two hours in the dark, using a cane to bolster a badly swollen knee, to get free eye and medical care at the S.C. Mission 2014 Midlands on Friday.
“I started at about 2 o’clock and got here around 4,” said Marshall, 62, who walked from an area near Providence Hospital. “I had to rest a few times.”
That’s how desperate some people are for free health care. Marshall was among about 200 lined up with the gates opened for S.C. Mission at the State Fairgrounds at 6 a.m. Almost all of those in line went straight to the waiting area for optical care.
Because Medicare and Medicaid cover only limited eye care, many elderly and low-income people put off eye exams to avoid the expense. All of the eye care slots for Friday were filled by 9:30 a.m.
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Edward and Betty Austin of Kershaw were the first in line Friday, arriving at 1 a.m. “I’m diabetic, so I need my eyes checked,” said Edward Austin.
Gloribel Gonzalez of Columbia was just behind the Austins. “I’ve got the other stuff covered, but not the vision and dental,” she said. “You wonder why the people in South Carolina don’t have teeth.”
Unfortunately, dental coverage wasn’t offered at S.C. Mission, but the S.C. Dental Association offered free services at its annual Dental Access Days event Friday and Saturday in Rock Hill.
This is the first time S.C. Mission and Dental Access Days have been on the same days in different cities. S.C. Mission’s organizers suspect that played a role in the reduction in medical care patients at the fairgrounds. People in need of both dental and medical had to choose a location, and Rock Hill probably won out.
The event, which continues Saturday from 6 a.m. to noon, provides free care for anyone age 17 or older. More than 1,000 people, including 500 health care professionals, donate their time, and local health care organizations provide the supplies.
Last year, the demand for medical care slowed throughout the first day, but at least a trickle continued through the 6 p.m. closing. This year, some medical workers were sitting around with nothing to do Friday afternoon.
Mac Bennett, CEO of the United Way of the Midlands and chair of the Mission event this year, said he still expected the event would handle about 600 “patient events” on Friday. Since some patients doubled up on eye care and medical care, that means fewer than 600 patients likely would be seen. Last year, the event handled about 1,300 patient events in two days.
Bennett said the United Way and the local hospitals are working on a plan that will beef up the very limited free or low cost dental and eye care available year-round in the Midlands. The need for eye care was obvious Friday.
More than 40 optometrists volunteered for S.C. Mission, enough to staff five stations from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. Friday and 6 a.m. to noon on Saturday. S.C. Lions Charitable Services brought its mobile exam van, where an initial exam is done to determine whether patients need the more extensive dilation exam.
Organizers of the event expect the eye care staff will be able to see 350-400 patients. Because lenses have to be individualized, most will leave the fairgrounds with a voucher for a pair of glasses to pick up in two weeks.
After getting her eyes examined and getting fit for glasses, Marshall planned to get back in line for medical care for the knee she injured when she fell off her porch. She said she went to the emergency room when that injury first happened, but the knee was still swollen and had an open sore on the side on Friday.
Marshall’s eyes teared up when a volunteer told her she could use a voucher to get a cab ride home.
“Thank you so much,” she said.