Mobile free clinic to serve Lexington County

LEXINGTON,SC,12/9/09 A group led by Dr. Suzy Schwab is organizing the first mobile free medical clinic in Lexington county.  they have purchased a special truck and plan to start seeing patients sometime in January. 
Photo by TIM DOMINICK/tdominick@thestate.com,©The State Media Co.
LEXINGTON,SC,12/9/09 A group led by Dr. Suzy Schwab is organizing the first mobile free medical clinic in Lexington county. they have purchased a special truck and plan to start seeing patients sometime in January. Photo by TIM DOMINICK/tdominick@thestate.com,©The State Media Co.

The driving force behind a new Christian-based mobile free medical clinic is the Iranian-born daughter of a Muslim father and an American Jewish mother.

Dr. Suzy Schwab's background is nearly as mind-boggling as her dream about taking medical care on the road, but both make perfect sense to her.

A few years ago, Schwab cut back on her medical career to raise a family. She still found time to help at free clinics, do medical missionary work and lately fill in on weekends at a rural hospital emergency room in Edgefield County.

What she saw got under her skin. People struggling to get ahead instead were falling behind because they couldn't afford medical care.

"I saw so many people falling through the cracks," Schwab said. "The working poor, the people serving you at McDonald's or Burger King, they can't afford medical insurance. I thought, 'Why couldn't I just take my stethoscope out, get a truck and serve their medical needs?'"

Of course, it wasn't that simple. But Schwab has a way of making the complicated seem matter-of-fact. Take her background, for example.

Her family fled her home country in 1978 as Islamic fundamentalists took control of Iran. "We were kicked out," Schwab said with a what-else-could-they-do shrug. "My mother was American."

They settled in New York. Schwab excelled in school, went to St. John's University as an undergraduate and the State University of New York at Syracuse for medical school. While later training in surgery at the University of Virginia, she met Irmo native Stephen Schwab. They married and after numerous stops ended up in the Midlands, where Stephen Schwab is an emergency medical physician at Lexington Medical Center.

Keeping her hand in medicine while raising their four children, Suzy Schwab agreed in 1998 to fill in at a Columbia practice after Dr. Greg Jowers died in a boating accident on Lake Murray. The decision turned out to be a turning point in her life.

Signs of Jowers' devout Christianity were everywhere in his office. Schwab didn't feel it was right to remove Jowers' stuff. After a while, the stuff seemed to be sending her a message.

"That's when I became a Christian," she said. "He had Scriptures on the wall sent to him by patients, and (the Scriptures) talked to me. And the patients would tell me their testimony."

She found her new goal in biblical verses that call for Christians to take care of the less fortunate. That quest led her to Pastor Vaifanua Pele and his Mission of Hope Ministries, which provides food and clothing to the less fortunate in Cayce, Saluda and Batesburg-Leesville. Pastor Pele, who retired in the Midlands after his Army career, also makes annual medical missionary treks to Mexico and his native Samoa.

"His vision and mine are the same," Schwab said. "He twisted my arm to go to Mexico with him, and I saw how well his model works.

"People come to you with their physical needs, and you help them, and then you tend to their spiritual needs, too. I thought, 'Why couldn't we take what works so well miles and miles away and do it in our backyard?'"

So the Iranian-born doctor and the Samoan-born pastor have joined to serve the needs of a working-poor community that is a mix of whites, blacks and Hispanics.

"It's amazing," Pele said. "Only God can do these things."

They cooked up the idea of equipping a mobile doctor's office and taking it to the Mission of Hope's food and clothing giveaways in Lexington County.

Schwab pitched the idea to her home church, Mount Horeb United Methodist, and to the medical community. She got nothing but encouragement along the way.

"Lexington is very generous," Schwab said. "Unsolicited, people have come forward and donated. This community can take this on."

Schwab established a nonprofit organization, recruited a board of directors and raised money (and spent some of her own funds) to buy a used medical van for $50,000 from New York Presbyterian Hospital. She and her father drove the van to South Carolina this fall.

MedMission won't be the state's first mobile free clinic. Clemson University has one, and the Dream Center Clinic in Charleston is starting a mobile outreach, said Amanda Berrier, executive director of the S.C. Free Clinic Association.

"But Suzy is unique in that she's really doing it on her own," Berrier said.

Schwab wants to avoid governmental connections that might limit the scope of MedMission's pastoral work.

More mobile clinics likely will pop up because the needs for medical services in poor, rural areas are great. In the past year, the number of new patients at free clinics in the state has increased by 40 percent as more people lose jobs and their insurance coverage, Berrier said.

Rep. Nikki Haley, R-Lexington, heard Schwab's early appeal to her church (both attend Mount Horeb United Methodist). She thought Schwab had a great idea and was so impressed with Schwab's passion she agreed to serve on the MedMission board of directors.

"MedMission is a great example of a community getting involved and not waiting for the government to take care of them," Haley said. "If we can make this work, it can be something other areas will want to do."

Schwab hopes that by teaming with Mission of Hope, MedMission can get the needy to make health care part of their routine. Continuity of care is the key to reducing the poor's devastating struggles with diabetes, hypertension and heart disease, she said.

The final paperwork should be completed soon, and MedMission should begin treating patients in January.

After a couple of years of asking people to help her with the project, Schwab can't wait to start helping others.

"Everyone has their gift in life. It's what God has given us," Schwab said. "I am a physician."