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A Doctor Who Cares—for Free

updated 10/05/2009 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 10/05/2009 01:00AM

Lorna Stuart, 60

Phoenixville, Pa.

Dr. Lorna Stuart couldn't take it anymore. The Oxford-educated doctor was earning a comfortable six figures—but, with every passing day, she was seeing more patients who had delayed medical care because they had no insurance. "They were so sick," she says. "I wanted to look after them."

She left her private practice, downsized into a condo, gave up her salary for a few years and—with the help of Mother Marie Swayze, her Episcopal priest, and countless spaghetti dinner fund-raisers and donations from former patients—converted an old church rectory into the Clinic (theclinicpa.org).

Within weeks of the facility's 2002 opening, Stuart, a divorced mother of two grown sons, was seeing patients for everything from high blood pressure to skin cancer. Today, with an eight-person staff and more than 100 volunteers, the clinic has treated 54,000 people, asking only that they pay what they can—on average, $14 a visit. "I've always taken care of myself, so it was the hardest thing for me to come here," says Terri Garchinsky, 51, who has suffered from chest pain but lost her insurance after being laid off from her construction job. "But Dr. Stuart listens; she understands. She's a saint."

A CHANCE TO CHANGE HER LIFE

Denisha Carr couldn't breathe. To control her asthma, the 27-year-old mom of a third grader had been taking medicine and using an inhaler, both covered by Medicaid. In December 2007 she got a small raise at the animal shelter where she worked, which left her earning too much to qualify for government aid. Unable to afford the $400 monthly cost for her prescriptions, she went without them—and ended up in the ER, gasping for breath. "I thought I was going to die," she says. "I was scared. What was my son going to do without me?" She was hospitalized six more times in six months.

Someone at the hospital told her about Stuart's clinic. She started going every three weeks and got back on medication through a program the clinic runs with the help of pharmaceutical companies. Now, with her condition under control, she has started community college and plans to become a nurse. "I have my life back," she says. "I can't thank Dr. Lorna and her nurses enough."

A CLINIC VISIT CAUGHT HER HEART ATTACK

Dina Churgai works three jobs—school crossing guard, cashier and switchboard operator—but none offers insurance. One morning last spring Dina—whose husband can't work because of multiple sclerosis—grew short of breath and felt a tightness in her chest. Worried about medical bills, "I wouldn't have seen anyone if not for the Clinic," says Dina, 49, who has diabetes and has gone there for the past three years.

Arriving drenched with sweat, Dina was seen right away by Stuart, who called an ambulance: Dina was having a heart attack. "They told me at the ER I'd have died if I hadn't come," she says. These days the mother of two teenagers is taking daily 20-minute walks to stay healthy. "I love Dr. Lorna," Dina says. "Where else could I go if she weren't here?"

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