It was a Sunday evening in 2006, and the Outreach Committee of Rayne United Methodist Church was meeting in the office of Reverend Callie Crawford, Senior Pastor. Hurricane Katrina had hit New Orleans on August 29, 2005, filling up the below-sea level city with water, destroying 80% of the city’s homes, and resulting in a city-wide evacuation that lasted for months. The city’s basic infrastructure, including homes, streets, electricity, gas lines and gas stations, schools, and transportation system were destroyed. In the months since the hurricane, as the population slowly trickled back into the city, essential services also slowly returned. People scrambled to rebuild, drawing contractors and construction workers into the city in record numbers. Although Rayne had sustained significant damage to its steeple, allowing water to pour into its beautiful sanctuary, worship services resumed in the fellowship hall as Rayne proudly joined the slowly growing number of organizations in the city with doors marked simply, “OPEN”. Most Methodist Churches had sustained significant damage in the storm, and Rayne was no exception. But it was open, and that fact alone made it a beacon for the returning population. The Outreach Committee had new importance, as Rayne struggled to meet the overwhelming needs of the post-Katrina New Orleans population, offering Sunday services in its fellowship hall while hosting mission groups from across the country who came to aid in the rebuilding process.
One need preyed on Pastor Callie’s heart above the others: that of the lack of health services in the city. Most hospitals had closed; doctors had lost their homes and their offices; emergency response systems were paralyzed. People had lost their jobs and with it their health insurance, and many immigrants who came to rebuild were not eligible for public insurance. Volunteers from across the country poured into the city to help with the rebuilding effort. One of the many mission groups that came to help rebuild came from St. Marks Methodist Church in Lincoln, Nebraska. St. Marks had started a free clinic for the uninsured named, “Clinic with a Heart.” Why couldn’t Rayne do the same? Callie brought the idea to Rayne’s Outreach Committee. She also brought it to Reverend Connie Thomas, pastor of Mt. Zion Methodist Church in Central City New Orleans. Rayne had worked with Mt. Zion in the past, and Central City was an especially resource-poor area of New Orleans where many were left homeless after the storm. Like Rayne, Mt Zion had also suffered significant damage in the storm, and was in the process of rebuilding its sanctuary. Pastor Connie had lost the roof of her own home during Katrina, and was responsible for housing, feeding and deploying 30,000 volunteers who had come to rebuild after the storm. She was enthusiastic about the idea, and offered her church fellowship hall for the clinic space. The only caveat was that the clinic had to disappear when it wasn’t operating, to free the fellowship hall for other church activities.
A YEAR OF PLANNING:
Over the next year, a passionate workgroup formed between the two churches, and the plans for the free clinic evolved. Its name would be “Luke’s House” after the Biblical physician, with the mission “to provide hope, help, and healing in response to the medical, mental, and spiritual health concerns of the post-Katrina New Orleans community”. The clinic would provide pastoral counseling as well as free medical care, and would turn no one away. Initial funds of $90,000 per year for two years were secured through the Methodist Conference; additional funds came from church donations. Interviews were held for the first clinic Director. The work group selected Jiselle Bock, a Certified Nursing Assistant with an MPH from Tulane and medical school aspirations, enthusiasm that could not be contained, a clear vision, and past experience working in a free clinic. Dr. Sue Berry, an LSU pediatrician on the Rayne Outreach Committee, agreed to serve as Medical Director. Sue had served as the Chief of Clinical Services for the City of New Orleans well baby clinics and two FQHCs, as well as Medical Director for over 60 of the state’s Children’s Special Health Clinics (CSHS) subspecialty clinics. The two worked excitedly planning the services of the clinic, getting state Office of Public Health approval to open under the state’s emergency rule post Katrina, and enlisting volunteers. Jiselle fashioned 6 exam rooms using dividers made from PVC piping and sheets as privacy drapes. Volunteers could erect the room dividers before each clinic and disassemble them when the last patient had left. A physician who was closing his practice in New York learned of Luke’s House and mailed numerous boxes of clinic equipment, supplies, and medications. Jiselle created a clinic flow plan: the fellowship hall would be transformed into an intake area with a reception area, a waiting area, exam rooms with massage tables for exam tables and drawers with clinical supplies, a separate corner for children’s activities, a check-out desk with resource information and health education resources, a pharmacy closet to store donated medications, secure shelving for clinic charts, and a large closet where all would disappear between clinics. Volunteer roles were outlined; security was arranged with the New Orleans Police Department. Over 50 volunteers were trained, including nurses, an occupational therapist, church volunteers, MPH students, and Spanish interpreters. Only one thing was missing: No physician had come forward to provide adult medical services.
Dr. Berry was a pediatrician, and not accustomed to treating the chronic needs of adult patients such as diabetes and hypertension. Pleas for a volunteer physician to members of the church community had come up dry. It was two weeks before the clinic’s opening day, and still no physician. Finally, Sue emailed the internal medicine and family practice chairmen and residency directors of Tulane and LSU. With many hospitals still closed and many faculty let go, she received many negative responses: “not enough staff to cover our own clinics”; “no faculty left after the storm”; “our own clinics are not generating enough revenue to break even.” Only one response was positive. Dr. Betty Lo, Residency Director for the LSU Medicine Pediatric Residency Program emailed a response: “We can do it. We can commit to a two hour clinic, every week. I will schedule an attending physician and two residents per clinic for the rest of the year.” Sue replied, “Are you sure? Every week through the end of June?” Dr. Lo said, “Yes! We need a service project!” Sue quickly accepted the offer and arranged for a contractual agreement with LSU. With a formal agreement, LSU providers would be covered by LSU malpractice insurance, whether they be faculty, residents, nurses, or medical students. Luke’s House was covered for liability under the state’s emergency rule following Hurricane Katrina. The Luke’s House Board was quickly formed with Melissa Erekson as its first Chairperson. Under Melissa’s direction and with the help of a consultant from the General Board of Global Ministries, the clinic became incorporated in June 2007 as a 501c3.
Luke’s House opened its doors on Tuesday, November 13, 2007. Initial services included homeless vouchers from 3:00 pm to 6:00 pm, medical services for non-emergent conditions from 6:00 – 8:00 PM, a prescription assistance program through Walmart, and CLIA-waived in-house laboratory tests such as Urine Dipstick, Rapid Strep, cholesterol, blood glucose, and Hgb A1C. The clinic did not offer send-out labs, since there was no way to deal with abnormal results effectively between clinics. Dr. Bob Lancaster, retired psychiatrist from Tulane and Rayne church member, provided psychiatric consultation in an upstairs office. Mt. Zion Church opened a clothes closet behind the church during clinic hours, to provide free clothes to those in need. Sue was able to secure free immunizations from the Office of Public Health. The No-Aids Task Force provided AIDS testing and counseling through a mobile van, and Louisiana Spirit provided two counsellors for each clinic who provided mental health counseling. Deborah York, an occupational therapist, provided OT consultation to patients. Luke’s House had launched!
The clinic averaged 11-15 patients every Tuesday including: students, workmen, homeless, undocumented, working poor, and professionals who had lost their homes and their jobs. No one was turned away. Dr. Bob’s psychiatry clinic became so popular that it quickly evolved to accepting patients “only by appointment.” Each clinic night brought an atmosphere of acceptance, kindness, love, respect, collaboration, and above all, high quality compassionate health care. To this day, LSU Medicine Pediatric Residents and faculty continue to provide medical services every Tuesday evening in an unwavering commitment to serve.
CHANGE AND LOSS:
While the physician coverage was steady, the next several years were full of administrative changes for Luke’s House. Jiselle started Tulane Medical School in 2008, and a new director, Tom Grissom, was hired. Tom was a pastor with a young family who was between churches. Services continued, uninterrupted, in the “suitcase clinic” as it came to be called. Then on November 24, 2009, Pastor Connie Thomas died suddenly of pneumonia at the age of 51. Connie left two young sons and an active ministry that included not only Mt. Zion Church and Luke’s House, but the Zion Christian Academy and the Starburst Leadership Team for at-risk youth, which she also helped establish. Luke’s House had lost one of its founding saints, and her loss was greatly felt. After Connie’s death, the clinic continued in the Mt. Zion Church fellowship hall for another two and a half years.
After a couple of years Tom Grissom moved on, and in July of 2010, Lisa Lynde, a nonprofit professional with an interest in historical preservation, was hired as Director. The Chair of the Board underwent changes as well, with Ron Anderson taking the lead after the first year.
BRASS BASH LAUNCHES!
Soon after Lisa came on board, Erica Washington, an epidemiologist in the Office of Public Health and Deborah York, both longtime volunteers, led a team which organized the first Brass Bash fundraiser for Luke’s House. Brass Bash was a fun event at a jazz club in the quarter, with music, drinks, food and fun. While the first event only realized $1500 profit, the seeds were sewn to make it an annual event. Brass Bash has grown larger each year, gaining in reputation and in profits and in recent years clearing over $10,000 annually. A highlight of the evening is the Luke House Service Award, which is given to a selected volunteer who has given of themselves selflessly over the previous year. The award is given in honor of Pastor Connie Thomas.
EXPANSION IN A NEW LOCATION:
As Luke’s House grew in patient numbers, budget, donations, and reputation, it outgrew its “suitcase clinic” space. In 2007, an opportunity opened up for the clinic to move to a house on Simon Bolivar that was owned by the United Methodist Church, located about a mile from its original location in Mt. Zion Church. The house needed repairs, fresh paint, insulation, air conditioning, and some remodeling including a new bathroom and a wheelchair ramp, but the price was right at $1 per year. The house would remain the property of the Methodist Church; the only cost to Luke’s House was the repair and utilities. After over a year of volunteer weekends, led by Brad Hubbard and James Comeaux , the repairs, clean up, and a fresh coat of paint, both inside and out, were complete. NOLA Wesley, the Methodist Campus Ministry at Tulane/Loyola, added the wheelchair ramp. Lisa used her decorating talents to furnish the inside, exchanging massage tables for real exam tables and sheets and PVC piping for real exam room curtains that could slide on metal rods. While much smaller than its original space, Luke’s House had a permanent home! Set up could stay up, making it easier to provide services on more than one day per week. In March 2012, Erica Washington was elected Chair of the Board, and on May 8, 2012, Luke’s House opened in its new location.
In 2013, Dr. Dodd Denton, internist, moved to the city after retiring from the military. Dodd had accepted a position at Ochsner, and chose Rayne as his church home. Dodd did not hesitate to volunteer his services at Luke’s House, permitting the clinic to add one Thursday night per month. Dodd would bring medical students from Ochsner, expanding the influence of Luke’s House to young physicians in training. Lisa and the Board set their goal on offering services the other Thursdays of the month. Soon, Tulane medical students expressed an interest in opening a Spanish night with Spanish speaking physicians and interpreters. An agreement with Tulane was signed, and before long another Thursday night was filled. Not long afterwards, the clinic received ophthalmology equipment including a slit lamp, and so the search began for an optometrist to further expand services.