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Dr. Tom Johans, right, and Dr. Noah Brown examined a bump on Rhonda Neel of Festus with an ultrasound machine April 4 during the Rural Parish Clinic medical clinic’s stop outside the Peace Pantry in Cedar Hill. The Rural Parish Clinic is marking its fifth anniversary in 2024.
Dr. Tom Johans, right, and Dr. Noah Brown examined a bump on Rhonda Neel of Festus with an ultrasound machine April 4 during the Rural Parish Clinic medical clinic’s stop outside the Peace Pantry in Cedar Hill. The Rural Parish Clinic is marking its fifth anniversary in 2024.
Photo Credit: Jacob Wiegand

New partnerships help Rural Parish Clinic connect, care for people in need

The clinic is marking five years of bringing medical care to uninsured patients in rural areas

The Rural Parish Clinic came to town at precisely the right time for Jason Fatch.

Fatch, 34, was working to get clean from a drug addiction. He wanted to see a doctor as he figured out what a new version of health could look like, but he’d been without health insurance for about 10 years.

So it felt like God’s providence when he heard that a free medical clinic would be parked once a month in front of the pantry in Cedar Hill. His grandmother, who comes to the Peace Pantry for food on Thursday mornings, called him and encouraged him to make an

Rural Parish Clinic workers including Linda DeClue, Sister Mary Rachel Nerbun, RSM, Annette Portell and Sandy Laramore gathered for prayer April 4 during the medical clinic’s stop outside the Peace Pantry in Cedar Hill.
Photo Credits: Jacob Wiegand

At his first visit in January, he took an immediate liking to Dr. Mary Vatterott Hastings, one of the volunteer physicians at the clinic. “I think she could see the potential in me,” he said. “She didn’t push anything on me…she just seemed relatable, and I felt like I connected with her. She’s here on her own time, so she has no real motivation other than to seek what’s best for me, and I sensed that.”

In 2024, the Rural Parish Clinic is marking five years of providing medical care to uninsured patients in rural areas of the Archdiocese of St. Louis. The 40-foot mobile clinic began in 2019 at St. Joachim Parish in Old Mines in Washington County and has since expanded to include sites in Franklin, St. Francois and Jefferson counties. Since 2019, the medical clinic has seen 2,026 patient visits and 11,849 volunteer hours.

The dental clinic launched in 2021 to bring oral health care to those in need, beginning at Father Dempsey’s Charities in St. Louis. Since then, it’s added stops in Lincoln, Franklin, Washington, St. Francois and Ste. Genevieve counties. Dental services include cleanings, X-rays, tooth extractions, fillings and dentures. The clinic typically remains in one location for several days in a row to allow time for patients to come back for follow-up treatments or procedures. About 400 patients have received treatment at the dental clinic since its inception.

Both clinics offer free care to adults under age 65 at or below 200% of the federal poverty level. According to 2023 data from the U.S. Census Bureau, 15% of Washington County adults under age 65 do not have health insurance, 12% in Franklin County, 13% in St. Francois County, and 10% in Jefferson County.

The Annual Catholic Appeal supports the Rural Parish Clinic.

The Peace Pantry, a nonprofit thrift store, food and clothing pantry in Cedar Hill, is the clinic’s newest site, just added in January. While many of the clinic’s locations are Catholic churches, the team also looks for opportunities to partner with other trusted local organizations in new areas, said Rural Parish Clinic president and medical director Sister Mary Rachel Nerbun, RSM.

“For the trust factor, it has been helpful to partner with a place like Peace Pantry and (Sonrise Baptist Church in) Bonne Terre, because they are large entities. They’re here all the time. And they’ve welcomed us in to form this partnership,” she said. “They were very desirious to have us bring the clinic here, not just to refer to us…and they were desirous that we would stay. I said, ‘We’re not going anywhere. We’re coming every first Thursday of the month.’”

While the Peace Pantry’s main focus is providing food and clothing for people in need, the pantry also connects them with other available resources. Director of operations Robert Hanners said adding on-site medical care through the Rural Parish Clinic partnership was a great benefit.

“I love having the (clinic) here. I think it’s a real plus for Peace Pantry, a plus for our community,” Hanners said. “The more we can reach out to serve those in need — that’s what God tells us to do.”

Rural Parish Clinic volunteer Sue McKenna, RN, escorted Rhonda Neel of Festus into the medical clinic April 4 during the clinic’s stop outside the Peace Pantry in Cedar Hill.
Photo Credits: Jacob Wiegand
As the Rural Parish Clinic expands to new towns and counties, building trust is an important part of the process, Sister Mary Rachel said. “Most of our providers come from the city, so you can look at it as outsiders coming into these counties to do good. And they’re suspicious of that, for a reason — they have had people come down who don’t stay, who don’t form good relationships.”

To build that trust, “I think a lot of that comes with just accepting people where they are,” she continued. “But it also comes with building relationships over time. We’re a continuity clinic in the sense that we’re not just here as an urgent care. We can take care of some urgent things — one of our patients is sick, or sometimes it’s helped people get introduced to us when they’re sick and need immediate help — but we’re really here to do preventative care and chronic disease managment. What we do is take care of people over a span of life, and we form relationships with them, we get to know them.”

Rhonda Neel, a resident of Festus, has been receiving care from the Rural Parish Clinic for three years, first at its former location at Good Shepherd in Hillsboro and now at the Peace Pantry in Cedar Hill.

“I love these people. They’re awesome. They are so thorough. They take their time to listen to you,” Neel said. “They do everything to get everything that’s going on with you, health-wise…they really get down to what’s going on and do everything they can to fix it.”

When her health problems were greater than what could be addressed on-site at the Rural Parish Clinic, the physicians connected her with further care, including a surgeon for an abdominal procedure. “As soon as they found out what was going on, they found a doctor and had it set up two weeks later,” she said.

As she’s returned for care over three years, the Rural Parish Clinic staff have become “just really good friends,” Neel said, noting how each person greets her by name and asks how she’s doing. “Every single person that you come into contact with is just as nice as can be. They make you feel at home; they make you feel like family.”

Dietician Martha Vatterott is a recent addition to the Rural Parish Clinic volunteer team, meeting with patients to discuss healthy eating habits and strategies. She’s spent time checking out the grocery stores in the areas the clinic visits so she has a better idea of what’s available and affordable, she said.

“I remember one of my first clients coming in, and he didn’t have a stove. He had a microwave and a hot plate,” she said. “So, there can be challenges with what people’s facilities are: income, accessibility to a grocery store. And then, what are the modes of preparation in their home? What can they do?”

She recently retired from private practice and was inspired to offer her expertise after the medical van visited her parish, St. Gerard Majella in Kirkwood, this summer.

“I might drive an hour here and an hour home and see one person — but if I do, then that was what I came for,” she said. “I think that is answering a calling.”

Sandy Laramore, a parishioner at St. Joseph in Farmington, has been volunteering with the medical clinic since retiring in 2020 after a 40-year nursing career. On April 4, she chatted with patients as she took their vital signs and prepared them to see a physician on the van.

Her faith is one of the driving forces that keeps her coming back, she said. “You want to use the gifts you have to help others,” she said.

As Sister Mary Rachel reflects on the Rural Parish Clinic’s growth over the past five years, she’s also looking to the future. This year is one of stabilization for the medical and dental clinics, but in the coming years, she hopes to continue expanding services. She’d like to put together a speciality clinic to offer patients the chance to see a cardiologist or an orthopedist, for example. Expanding the medical clinic north to Warren and Lincoln counties is also a goal.

“And what we’d really like to do is grow our patient base in each of our sites we’re in,” she said.

When Jason Fatch looks at what’s ahead, he sees the opportunities that good health affords him. He has a steady job at the gas station down the road from the Peace Pantry. He has an improved relationship with his two daughters, and he’s involved in a Christian church in town. Being able to return for check-ups at the clinic has been key, he said.

“All these ladies (at the clinic) took me under their wing, you know, and I’ve got nothing but good things to say,” he said. “It’s more than a just a clinic.”

>> Contact the Rural Parish Clinic

To make an appointment with the medical clinic, call 888-870-9610. For the dental clinic, call 314-225-4034.

To view the medical and dental clinic schedules, learn about volunteering, or donate, visit archstl.org/rpc.

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