Today is my birthday — No. 51. When I was a kid, I tried to picture what I would be like when I was in my 50s. It seemed impossibly old. Even after I had children in my 30s, I would think about their high school graduations and imagine an empty house, still unable to see what seemed so distant and vague. Some of this was natural – the young rarely believe they will ever get old. But some of it was uniquely mine.
My mother was the first woman in her family to live past 50. Both her mother and sister had passed away at young ages, and my mom was keenly aware of this milestone. When she reached her 51st birthday, she let out a metaphorical sigh of relief. As I approached this benchmark, I found myself wondering if I would make it across the invisible line like my mother did.
I’ve shared before that I grew up without health or dental insurance, which meant that, unless you were severely injured or knocking on death’s door, you did not go to the doctor. My first trip to the doctor was in college (I was forced by friends), which led to the discovery of an ovarian tumor. My first trip to a dentist after graduate school meant several fillings and the removal of all four wisdom teeth. Thankfully, I haven’t experienced any major chronic illnesses (knock wood), despite carrying more weight than anyone would like, thanks to a childhood of processed and fried foods.
What does this have to do with Oasis Free Clinics?
At Oasis, we provide free medical, dental, mental health, and prescription assistance services to adults who don’t have health insurance and who often struggle to make ends meet. Most of our patients work – often two or three jobs – and either aren’t offered or cannot afford the insurance provided by their employer. Few of our patients have wiggle room in their budgets to accommodate increases in grocery and gas prices, let alone the addition of an expensive medication like insulin or the need for new eyeglasses. It can be challenging to think about health when dinner consists of whatever you can grab at the gas station on the way to your second job.
Much is known about the impact on people when they don’t have health insurance, access to healthy foods or environments, and a relationship with a doctor. According to Healthy People 2030, kids who live in poverty are more likely to grow into adults living in poverty. In turn, those adults are more likely to have high blood pressure and diabetes, use tobacco, alcohol and other substances, and experience mental health issues. In a country that spends more per capita on healthcare than any other, if you have experienced poverty, there is a really good chance that you will live a minimum of 10 years less than someone with wealth.
That statistic keeps me awake at night, thinking about Oasis patients, my family, myself. While I recognize in Oasis patients the same resilience and resolve that I see in my family and friends, it comes at a price – often wear and tear on the body, mind, and spirit. It costs a lot to be poor in this country.
We are trying to change that at Oasis. Our medical, dental, and mental health providers work with our patients to overcome the odds that are in front of them. Through compassionate and respectful care, our medical providers help patients identify their life and health goals, what steps or changes could be made to achieve them, and what tools are needed. Our team of dentists, hygienists, and assistants understand that oral health and beautiful smiles are critical for economic opportunities and to feel good about yourself. Recognizing that trauma and mental health issues impact physical health, our cadre of mental health volunteers provide counseling that focuses on patients’ strengths. While we may not be directly changing our patients’ finances, we firmly believe (and data support) that healthy people are good employees, spouses, parents, children, and community members. It is our hope that by providing access to free medical, dental, and other care, we are helping to chip away at the burden of poverty that our patients bear and creating a healthier community along the way.
As I reflect on and celebrate being the second woman in my family to live past 50, I am grateful to the medical providers, dentists, and mental health counselors who have cared for people like me and the patients at Oasis, making sure that we are healthy so we can be here for weddings, anniversaries, kids’ graduations, and the births of our grandchildren. If I could have one wish for my birthday, it would be this: May we all have the opportunity to live the healthiest life we can for as long possible.
Oasis Free Clinics is a nonprofit, no-cost primary care medical practice and dental clinic, providing patient-centered care to uninsured adults living in Freeport, Durham, Harpswell, Brunswick and Sagadahoc County. For more information, visit OasisFreeClinics.org or call (207) 721-9277.