On paper, it was a part-time job. For Sharon Kay, it was a full-time commitment.
For the past four years, Kay has been director of the Huntington County Free Clinic.
The clinic started out as a dream of hers. Then it became a goal, and her mission. On March 22, the clinic will become her legacy to Huntington County.
Kay is retiring, soon to move to Hamilton County to be closer to four of her seven children and 11 of her 13 grandchildren. She will leave behind a rapidly growing clinic that has become a health-care lifeline for hundreds of local residents and an exemplar of neighbor helping neighbor.
An open house in Kay's honor will be held on Friday, March 22, from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. at The Gathering Place, located on the corner of Guilford and West Washington streets, across the street from the clinic.
The Free Clinic, which has operated since its inception in space provided by Trinity United Methodist Church, serves people who have neither health insurance nor a family doctor. In 2012, the clinic saw 679 individual patients; many of them paid more than one visit. That is a dramatic increase from the first 15 months of the Free Clinic existence, when 250 people sought care at the downtown Huntington location.
"Before the clinic opened, these were people who waited until they had catastrophic problems, and they ended up in the emergency room," she remembers. "There needed to be something else."
Kay, who is a registered nurse, had worked in the local office of the WIC (Women, Infants and Children) nutrition program for years and was aware of how many people in the community lacked access to basic health care. She would occasionally refer these patients to her husband, Dr. John B. Kay, who would treat them free of charge if circumstances warranted.
After Dr. Kay's unexpected death in 2000, Sharon realized the people he had been seeing had no place to go.
"I worked in public health and I knew there was nobody to turn to," she said. In her role as a member of the Parkview Huntington Foundation board, she voiced her concerns.
"I opened my mouth and said this town needs something like Matthew 25," she recalled, referring to the Fort Wayne clinic staffed largely by volunteers and supported by a network of local businesses and not-for-profits. "The next thing I knew I was asked to head a committee to look into a clinic in Huntington."
With the assistance of medical and social services figures, the committee found space at Trinity for a clinic and pulled together the resources to open in October 2004. Kay chaired its first advisory board that hired Kelly Treglaff, a nurse practitioner, as the clinical point person.
"We had a really hard time finding a medical director," Kay said. "But Dr. Patsy Detamore stepped forward to fill that position. And Kelly was a local person who looked at the job opportunity and thought, ‘I really ought to help people in my own backyard.' "
That staff launched the clinic, which has since expanded into additional space at the church and broadened its services to include not just dental care but a program to deal solely with diabetics.
"There were 131 diabetic patients seen in 2012," Kay related. "That care is very expensive."
Psychological problems - particularly depression and bipolar disorder - account for a significant number of clinic patients as well.
"Unfortunately, people with these conditions don't realize things are not OK until they are really not OK," she said. "Our job is to get them enrolled in a program to provide the necessary medications for them or even to buy the medication they need."
In eight years, the clinic had helped its patients secure more than $2 million in medications from pharmaceutical companies that provide them free to needy patients.
The clinic's annual budget has expanded from $45,000 at the outset to $155,000 in 2012, with a part-time paid staff of five people.
Most patients are seen on Tuesdays and some programs also operate on Thursdays.
Funding has been a challenge for the clinic throughout its existence. Support from local organizations and the involvement of volunteers has been sufficient to keep up with the increase in patient load.
Though Kay's paid position as clinic director is described as a 20-hour-a-week job, that's seldom enough time to do what needs to be done. But she's not complaining.
"I have my heart invested in this," she said of the Free Clinic's mission. "I always have. But I realize that there is a time to leave and it's time.
"I'd like to think that I treated all the people we served well and that I loved them like my own children.
The people who come to the clinic aren't ‘those people' - they are members of the human race. I hope that I treated everyone like I'd want to be treated if I were in their place."
She has had her share of health difficulties of late, related to a hereditary nerve condition that affects her balance. Two falls last year at the home left her with back injuries which have limited her mobility.
She leaves at a time when the clinic is grappling with now-familiar concerns of funding and having enough space to comfortable handle its patient load.
The clinic's board of directors, she says, has no shortage of challenges, but the work is so important that it has always brought out the best in everyone associated with the effort.
"Often, it's not that people care how much you know," she declared. "It's that they know how much you care."