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Helping Kids Clinic aids uninsured, underinsured children

If you never needed to visit Helping Kids Clinic, you might not even realize that it’s there.

A colorful banner tacked to its beige stucco exterior is the only indicator of the clinic’s location, tucked amid a series of aging strip malls and storefronts that have most certainly seen better economic times.

Yet inside, the place offers hope and healing to 10,000 underinsured and uninsured children in Southern Nevada each year.

The private, nonprofit Helping Kids Clinic, at 968 E. Sahara Ave., is one of only a few local pediatric clinics that provides medical care and disease-preventing immunizations free of charge.

The clinic treats children up to age 18 with “barriers to health access,” who are ailing from minor illnesses — earaches, sore throats and the like — or in need of the physical exams that are required of athletes in order to participate in school sports programs. Hearing and vision screenings also are provided to kids, among other services.

True to its motto, “Health Access Without Walls,” the clinic is a staple at area immunization events, which take place mostly at schools, retail stores and shopping malls. To date, Helping Kids Clinic has provided free vaccinations to some 41,000 children, making it the second largest, nongovernment agency to provide immunizations in Nevada.

Helping Kids Clinic is the brainchild of Susan Brooks, a pediatric nurse practitioner who founded it five years ago. Prior to that, she had for a decade helmed a similar local endeavor called Clinic on Wheels, which brought medical services to area children in need via an old school bus-turned-mobile clinic.

“(Starting a clinic) the second time was a whole lot easier,” Brooks says. “I knew what to do.”

Through her experience with Clinic on Wheels, Brooks knows how to keep overhead costs low. She jokes about callouses on her fingertips, the result of having pinched many pennies in an effort to keep Helping Kids Clinic afloat on its small, $90,000 annual budget.

The clinic operates rent free courtesy of Trinity Life Church, which owns the land upon which its building sits. About $20,000 of its annual budget is spent on the purchase of syringes used to vaccinate children. Much of the remaining balance covers medical treatment costs.

Several shelves in the clinic’s storage room are lined with over-the-counter-type medications and supplies — the result of a donation to the clinic last year of unopened, leftover products following a McKesson Pharmaceuticals convention in Las Vegas (Helping Kids Clinic shared the bounty with several other local clinics).

What’s not always covered are salary costs for Helping Kids Clinic’s two paid employees. Brooks says because steady funds are not a given, it is impossible for her to hire any additional staff. “At this point in time … we don’t have money for payroll.”

That’s why the clinic relies so heavily on its 10 consistent volunteer caregivers and support-staff members, as well as a steady stream of students studying medicine at local colleges and universities, including the University of Nevada School of Medicine, Nevada State College, Touro University Nevada, College of Southern Nevada and Kaplan College.

Additional medical and nonmedical volunteers are always needed and welcomed, Brooks says.

Helping Kids Clinic also applies for and receives grants from various agencies. Last year, it received a $190,000 grant from the federal government, which was used to make much-needed renovations and other improvements to the clinic.

“This last year has been really nice, because we’ve actually had a little cushion of money and we were able to buy some new equipment and do some really cool things,” Brooks says. However, those funds ran out in August.

So it’s back to the drawing board for Brooks and her crew, who know how beneficial Helping Kids Clinic’s services are to the community.

While the clinic has always served children and families on the lower end of the socio-economic scale, “We have noticed in the last two years that we are seeing more middle-class patients” and their parents visiting the clinic,” she says.

“They come in and they apologize (by saying), ‘I really never thought I’d need to use this place, but my kid needs this, or my kid needs that, and we’ve lost our jobs. We don’t have insurance.’ ”

Although a $10 donation for services is requested, Brooks says parents don’t always have it to give.

“There are some people that come in here and you don’t know when the last time they ate was. I’m not going to take (a donation) from them,” she says.

Others can only afford to pay a couple of dollars.

“That’s good, we’ll take it, because that way they’re paying for the services, so it’s not so much that they feel like they’re getting charity.”

On a recent morning, a full hour before the clinic was set to open its doors for the day, parents sat shoulder to shoulder in the tiny, well-worn waiting room while their children milled about.

Soon, the young patients were called back to one of two exams rooms, with walls adorned with cartoon-character murals, and seen by Brooks or a volunteer, several of whom are bilingual to help accommodate the clinic’s large number of Hispanic patients.

“The kids usually like it here. We try to make it as kid-friendly as possible,” says Brooks, a grandmother of four. “Kids don’t have a lot of choices. Kids need to be seen, and kids need to be healthy.”

Sniffles and coughs aren’t the only illnesses she and her team confront on a daily basis. Asthma, childhood obesity and related ailments, including cardiac disease and high blood pressure, have also been discovered in patients at the clinic, as have lupus and even cancer.

For patients requiring more advanced treatment, the clinic schedules and often foots the bill for appointments with area medical specialists and dentists, and for such diagnostic tests such as X-rays, blood work and other laboratory services.

“We’re pretty judicious about how we use (such services),” Brooks explains. “Normally, in a private practice, you’d say, ‘OK, (the patient needs) this lab work and this (test).’ ” But at Helping Kids Clinic, “It’s kind of like, ‘OK, we’re stuck at this point. We really need to have lab work or we really need to have an X-ray … to make sure that we can get a good diagnosis.’ ”

Several local physicians and medical facilities donate their time and services in an effort to assist the clinic. (A list of sponsors and supporters, as well as items needed for donation, can be viewed helpingkidsclinic.org.)

Because of that generosity, Brooks says, she has never had a patient not receive the specialized medical attention he or she has needed. “We were just very lucky. People knew what we did, knew the quality of what we did, and made things happen for us.”

Dr. Andrew Eisen worked with Brooks at Clinic on Wheels and has been with Helping Kids Clinic since its inception, serving as its medical director. He juggles that duty with his full-time job as associate dean for clinical education at Touro University Nevada in Henderson and medical director for the school’s Center for Autism and Developmental Disabilities.

“It’s the right thing to do,” Eisen explains of his involvement with the clinic. “If not for us, these kids would go without medical care — that’s the bottom line. … For me not to do what I can, I would just find morally unacceptable.”

Eisen says Brooks and the volunteers typically call him when a patient presents with an ailment “they’re not sure about,” and he sometimes visits the clinic unannounced “just for fun, if I’m in the area.”

He says he’s seen several challenging cases arise at the clinic, including young patients suffering from bone cancer and leukemia. “Kids who’ve had these masses that have been there for month and years, and just haven’t had a place to go and get it taken care of.”

What Eisen finds most satisfying, however, is the preventative care provided at Helping Kids Clinic by way of immunizations. “The reason that’s not exciting is you don’t really see much (happening). You would see if it didn’t happen, but what we’re able to do is keep kids from getting sick.

“We’re talking about routine immunizations, and people forget a lot about those diseases,” he explains, such as measles and diphtheria, because few people who are parents now have experienced them, as parents of previous generations did.

Although chicken pox is considered these days to be a “fairly benign disease … kids die from chicken pox in this country every year because there are complications,” such as pneumonia and brain infections. “The chicken pox vaccine has essentially eliminated those serious complications, and being able to have that kind of effect is the most impressive work.”

Pam Beal, executive director of the Southern Nevada Immunization and Health Coalition, agrees. The private, nonprofit organization works closely with Helping Kids Clinic, which is one of SNIHC’s premier providers for administering vaccines at the dozens of immunization events it sponsors each year.

Earlier this month, Helping Kids Clinic began administering seasonal influenza vaccinations at SNIHC events throughout Southern Nevada, including several in rural and outlying areas.

“They understand the importance of serving the community,” Beal says of the clinic, “and they do it in a great way.”

Beal calls Brooks “a phenomenal person. It takes a person who has a lot of compassion to do what she does. … She’s a very intelligent, knowledgeable clinician.”

“Sue Brooks is a rock star,” adds Eisen. He credits her some for his continued level of commitment to the clinic. “I would feel ashamed, honestly, to see what Sue has done and know that I wasn’t contributing what I could. … Seeing what she puts into it is absolutely amazing.”

Were it not for the efforts of Brooks and the Helping Kids Clinic volunteers, Eisen says the community would be struggling. In particular, urgent-care centers and hospital emergency departments “that are already struggling to meet the need would be dealing with even more patients.

“The very patients we serve (at the clinic) are the patients who don’t have a payer source, so they’d be stressing the (health care) system of support to keep those entities open.”

While it’s impossible to pinpoint an exact number, Eisen assures the clinic “has kept kids out of emergency rooms and out of hospital beds and out of intensive-care beds, and that’s a significant relief for a system that is stressed.

“It’s not just a matter of what they do sitting in that clinic,” he reminds. Eisen attended a back-to-school immunization event earlier this year at Del Sol High School and assisted Helping Kids Clinic staffers in vaccinating and administering sports physicals to area students.

Given the number of families struggling in the current economy, he says, it’s imperative that children “be able to … get immunizations at no cost at all. These are kids who wouldn’t be allowed to go to school without those immunizations, and families who really don’t have the resources to take them anyplace else.”

Count 17-year-old Lauren among them. The Cimarron-Memorial High School senior visited Helping Kids Clinic last month after learning she would not be able to attend classes until she obtained a hepatitis A vaccination.

Lauren knew of the clinic through her mother, who had previously volunteered there and says she admires its mission to assist children.

“You don’t have to pay, so I guess that helps people,” she says. “It’s better to come here because they actually care (about patients.) They’re not in it for the money; they’re in it just to help others.”

Something Lauren says she also wants to do. After receiving her vaccination, she stopped at the clinic’s front desk and inquired about volunteering herself to work there.

“The way I was brought up was to help others,” she explains.

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