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Mary Steele, left, of River Falls was recently named manager of the Free Clinic of Pierce & St. Croix Counties. She replaces Linda Robertson, center, town of Hudson, who is retiring. Traci Lien (right), of Elmwood, is the clinic's new nursing supervisor. Photo by Phil Pfuehler

Free clinic reorganizes, prepares for more demand

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A retirement has brought changes to the operations of the Free Clinic of Pierce & St. Croix Counties.

Linda Robertson, Hudson, manager of clinical services since the clinic opened its doors more than three years ago, is leaving to join her husband in retirement.

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Robertson, who will be 62, said the timing was right to retire.

"My career has been involved in building nonprofits from the ground up, usually on behalf of those who don't have a voice, like the uninsured or those with some type of mental or physical disability," Robertson said. "I expect to continue in some capacity like that but on a volunteer basis. That's what I love to do, and I'm not ready to stop now."

Robertson's husband, Warren Schneider, retired earlier after 37 years at 3M. The couple loves taking long bike trips with friends (including a summer round trip from Spooner to Bayfield), and they also enjoy traveling in general and dancing.

Robertson said launching the free clinic has been profoundly rewarding.

"It serves a niche that doesn't exist anywhere else," she said. "I think the reason the free clinic is so well supported is that with the cost of health care what it is, and the lack of coverage for many, people realize how easily they could find themselves in a situation where they need the free clinic's services."

Robertson said the free clinic thrives to the degree that people pitch in.

"We're volunteer driven," she said. "Everyone is a link, and those links together contribute to how smoothly we run and how well we take care of our patients."

Robertson said rotational groups of volunteers coalesce each Tuesday evening in the free clinic's wing used at the River Falls Medical Clinic.

"Their name tags are worn like badges of honor," Robertson said. "We hand out mini-chocolate bars from bins as rewards, and we have a meal before the clinic opens. So we get to know each other as individuals and that has led to friendships.

"That camaraderie shows for our patients, because what you have on clinic night is a cooperative effort, an easygoing, feel-good atmosphere that goes a long way to relaxing patients who may arrive feeling apprehensive."

Robertson said it's hard to walk away from relationships she's made with free clinic volunteers and patients.

Like Robertson, Mary Steele has been a part-time paid employee at the free clinic from its inception.

Steele, from River Falls, has a background in nonprofit management with the Red Cross.

She began at the free clinic as volunteer coordinator before the position evolved into manager of clinic operations and, with Robertson's departure, clinic manager.

Steele is eager for her expanded role and says that the free clinic's role in the community is also expanding.

"We continue to see a growing need for the free clinic," she said. "Each week we are at full capacity. I believe this is a reflection of the general health of the economy that has resulted in so many people losing jobs, positions being cut to part time work, and young adults who are no longer covered under the parents' insurance but have not been able to find work.

"We see people come in each week who never imagined they would need to use a free clinic. It is a very humbling experience and takes swallowing some pride to take that step."

Steele said the free clinic itself had humble beginnings.

"(It) was started as a response to an unmet need for access to health care for uninsured individuals who are living at the federal poverty level," she said. "At one time we all may have thought that affected people we didn't know. That isn't the case any longer. It is now our friends, neighbors, coworkers and family members."

More than 2,000 patients -- almost all from St. Croix and Pierce counties -- have been treated since the free clinic opened in spring 2007.

Each Tuesday night that it's open, Steele said the clinic sees the maximum 25 people.

"But we also see another 30-40 who need prescription refills or dressings changed," she said. "And, we see 8-10 new patients each week, which has a compounding effect. Many of those have four to five chronic illnesses to be treated, so they must come back, and they need prescriptions for six months or longer."

Even factoring in discounts, one of the free clinic's biggest expense is prescription drugs. It fills 100-150 prescriptions each week, 52 weeks a year.

Because part of Robertson's work was supervisory nursing duties, the free clinic's board of directors decided to realign the job description to fit the management skills that her replacement, Steele, has.

Steele's hours increase as she takes over as clinic manager. Trace Lien was also hired part time to be nursing supervisor.

Steele and Lien are the free clinic's only two paid employees.

Lien, 39, is a single mom with two children, a daughter and a son. They attend school in Elmwood, where Lien is a school nurse.

Mary Conroy-Johnson, free clinic board chairwoman, said the Robertson-to-Steele transition will be smooth. She said because the two worked closely and had a great rapport, the free clinic's quality of care won't diminish.

Conroy-Johnson said Robertson, whom she called "Sunshine," brought a radiant work ethic that the free clinic will miss.

She described Robertson as handling patients with a gentle touch, educating them about their symptoms and medications, and making them feel listened to and treated fairly.

Conroy-Johnson said Steele has quickly become savvy in the medical care field, is unflappable and creative.

"Mary can brainstorm ideas," Conroy-Johnson said. "She's thoughtful, willing to learn and has a sense of getting things done."

Conroy-Johnson said the free clinic's immediate task is raising more money. It has a six-figure budget, has earned some private and government grants, but the outlook isn't bright.

"Our main focus, as a board, is financial support," she said. "We need to buck up on that. I'm really concerned."

Conroy-Johnson is willing to speak to local service groups about the free clinic. She added that organizations that hold fundraisers to benefit the free clinic would be very helpful.

"Keep us on the front burner and don't forget us," she said. "We need you to help us support those who depend on us in whatever ways you can."

Editor's note: For those who want to make a tax-deductible contribution, the address is: Free Clinic of Pierce & St. Croix Counties/P.O. Box 745/River Falls, WI 54022.

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