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Health chief wove lifeline for many

Community clinic’s first paid employee caps 20 years of service
by: L.E. BASKOW, Kathy Hammock (left), executive director of Wallace Medical Concern for 20 years, resigns next month, but she’s still busy with day-to-day details, including measuring cabinets at the Old Town facility, with the help of Cecily Peterson.

Kathy Hammock knows the numbers by heart: The Wallace Medical Concern, a nonprofit community health organization with clinics in Portland and Gresham, will treat approximately 3,400 patients this year, double the number from four years ago. Ninety-eight percent of Wallace’s patients have no health insurance. Seventy-four percent of patients’ income is at or below federal poverty levels. Four dollars — that’s the average payment from Wallace patients, who are asked to make a $15 donation that Hammock knows most cannot afford. One in three patients seen at the Wallace clinics in downtown Portland and Gresham speaks Spanish. Hammock has served as Wallace’s executive director for 20 years. This year will be her last. When Hammock announced last summer that she would resign in January, the loose confederation of people who work to provide medical care to the homeless and uninsured in Multnomah County let out a collective sigh, and then started to take stock, knowing one of their leaders soon would be gone. With Hammock at the helm, Wallace has managed to stay afloat while many other community medical clinics have started with grand dreams, provided care for a while, and then closed their doors. The pressures of uncertain funding, a growing population of people who need free or subsidized health care, and the constant demand for new volunteers usually take a toll on even the best-intended clinics, according to people familiar with the local health care scene. Tracy Gratto, executive director of the Coalition of Community Health Clinics, a local umbrella organization, says that Hammock’s vision is a primary reason Wallace has been able to prevail even though it always has been among the smallest clinics in Portland. According to Gratto, Wallace — under Hammock — never has been about getting bigger. “It’s about doing what she does very well,” Gratto says. “I’ve never met anyone that every decision she makes runs through this series of values she holds.” “Kathy has always been the voice of reason,” says John Duke, clinic and health services director for Outside In, a nonprofit agency that serves homeless youths. “So much so that within our coalition we have developed the Kathy test. We’ll ask ourselves, ‘What would Kathy do?’ The Kathy test is one way of looking at a question: Is it true to our mission, and is it prudent?” The Kathy test, Duke says, helps explain why Wallace is the longest continually operating safety-net clinic in Portland. Wallace board made its bet Jim Reuler, an Oregon Health and Science University professor of medicine who also serves as medical director of Wallace, calls the hiring of Hammock in 1987 “the best decision ever made by the (Wallace) board.” He calls Hammock “the heart and soul of Wallace Medical Concern.” “She’s had a profound impact on health care for the uninsured in the Portland area for her entire career,” Reuler says. Not bad praise for someone who 20 years ago applied for a job at Wallace as a 25-year-old VISTA volunteer with an undergraduate degree in French and international studies, no medical training, and only a whisper of an idea of what she wanted to do with her life. When the Wallace board hired Hammock as its first paid employee, it also hired her as its only paid employee. She recalls her first months on the job with a kind of nostalgic awe. “It was a totally overwhelming experience for me,” Hammock says. She remembers doing everything, from arranging follow-up care for visitors to the clinic’s Old Town operation to putting together kits of medical supplies packaged in fishing tackle boxes that volunteer medical providers would take room to room in the single occupancy hotels throughout Old Town. She evened mopped the clinic’s floor. Wallace opened its first clinic, in Old Town, three years before Hammock’s arrival, when Edwin Wallace, a former patient of Reuler’s, bequeathed $1,000 to start the clinic. Volunteers keep care coming With no paid staff, the clinic mostly depended on Reuler and health care volunteers he found who were willing to trade time for experience. It was open on the third floor of the Estate Hotel in Old Town and in various homeless shelters three nights a week. Today Wallace has three full-time and four part-time staff positions and 250 volunteers ranging from OHSU physicians and medical students to nurses and interpreters. It is open one night a week at its clinic at 727 W. Burnside St. and two nights a week at its Gresham clinic, 254 N.W. Burnside Road. Twenty to 30 patients will be treated on an average night at each clinic. While Wallace has grown, it never has been the best-funded clinic in the Portland area. It never has undertaken a capital campaign that would allow it to build a facility of its own — the Gresham clinic is housed in excess space donated by Providence Health and Services. Nimbleness and the ability to change focus as well as location have been the hallmarks of Hammock’s tenure, Reuler says. Wallace added the clinic in Gresham in 1999 because its clients — people without health insurance — were increasingly moving east from the traditional central city neighborhoods, according to Hammock. But moving closer to where she saw the need wasn’t enough for Hammock, who also decided that all paid clinic staff would speak Spanish. Spanish-speaking clients have been known to travel on the MAX line from as far away as Hillsboro to get to Wallace’s Gresham clinic. Fans come out of woodwork Hammock says her time at Wallace has been satisfying, but not always in the obvious ways. The work, she says, often is about averting disaster as much as solving a problem. Most patients, she says, come in only one time, usually in need of urgent care, often for an infection. “From time to time I’ve tried to place a value on our services, and it’s difficult to do,” Hammock says. “It’s sort of like that Jimmy Stewardt movie ‘It’s a Wonderful Life.’ What would the world be like if Wallace didn’t exist?” Hammock has had hints. She recalls patients who hadn’t seen a physician in years who had serious illnesses detected by Wallace staff. But just as memorable, she says, are the people whose lives have been affected by the simple kindness they received at Wallace. She remembers a man who stopped her on the street in downtown Portland. “He asked, ‘Hey, are you the lady from the clinic in the shelter? I just wanted to tell you how important you were to my sobriety.’ “Here’s a guy who, honestly, I didn’t remember him, and yet he had a hugely meaningful supportive experience at our clinic,” Hammock says. “Somebody cared about him.” Hammock, 46, says her last day at Wallace will be Jan. 31 and that she has absolutely no idea what she will do next. “I wanted the chance to do more than one thing in my life,” Hammock says. “I love the idea that I have these two chapters in my life, and maybe more. Wallace has been this great first chapter, and I’m excited to see what Chapter 2 looks like.” This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.