By RHONDA SIMMONS
Nov 4, 2017
If you or your parents ever visited the Free Clinic of Culpeper over the past two decades and a half decades, chances are Richard ‘Dick’ Batiste Jr. handed out your prescriptions.
Batiste, 81, is the familiar face behind the wooden door dispensing various medications to patients.
He’s been a faithful pharmacy aide volunteer since the clinic opened its doors on Nov. 5, 1992, some 25 years ago.
“I remember it was cold weather when it started,” Batiste said at the clinic.
The clinic first opened in the old health department on Laurel Street and the pharmacy was located in the basement of the behavioral health care department just a stone’s throw away.
For the past quarter century, Batiste’s main responsibility at the clinic has been to hand out prescriptions.
“When the prescription came from the physician, I would record it and run it over to the pharmacy located downstairs [in a nearby building] to get it filled and then I’d run back and pick it up after it was filled,” explained Batiste. “That was kind of fun. The patients caught on very quickly that I was going over there to pick up their medications. So they would come out in the parking lot and try to meet me.”
But Batiste obeyed the rules, telling patients that they had to return to the clinic to receive their medications properly.
The Free Clinic of Culpeper provides primary medical services to Culpeper residents, ages 18 to 65, who don’t have medical insurance and meet the eligibility requirements such as earning an annual salary below 200 percent of the federal poverty level. The clinic provides health care for those suffering from bronchitis to diabetes and heart disease.
“The free clinic helps all kinds of people. It helps your neighbors and the people at your church. And these are folks that are working hard and just want good health care like everybody else,” said Chris Miller, the clinic’s director.
He added the clinic also dispenses about $1.5 million worth of medications each year. Of the 63 free clinics in Virginia, only 20 are equipped with onsite pharmacies.
“We are really lucky to have our pharmacy,” said Miller.
Batiste said the best part of volunteering is seeing people getting better.
“And I’ve seen a lot of them for so long, they are like family now,” he said.
Batiste said being part of the Culpeper Rotary Club is what piqued his interest in volunteering at the free clinic. He’s been a Rotary Club member since 1973.
When folks talk about the free clinic, the following names always comes up as being associated with its creation include: doctors Amauri Gonzalez, Tom Reynolds, Brevard Wallace, Morton Chiles and Clara Eden and many others.
But Dr. Reynolds said Dr. Gonzalez was president of the Culpeper Medical Society when he brought the idea of creating a free clinic in Culpeper after both physicians saw a need for one in Culpeper County.
“The purpose was to provide medical care to people who didn’t have medical insurance,” Reynolds explained. “And so we needed to do something to try to help out. Also, medicines were so expensive and made it really difficult for a lot of patients to get medications if they didn’t have any insurance.”
With the first five physicians willing to volunteer, Dr. Reynolds said the clinic started off being open one night a week: Thursdays.
“That way we knew we could provide coverage for the free clinic,” he said. “Over time, we were able to bring in other specialists to help.”
But there was another mission of the free clinic, to keep patients from visiting the emergency room.
“Because the emergency department is very expensive and patients would wait until they were in urgent need of care. That’s because they were having a hard time getting into a doctor’s office because of the expense,” Dr. Reynolds explained. “From the very beginning we’ve had one mission: To provide care and compassion for every patient that we saw.”
Dr. Gonzalez said recently that it was various local medical staff members at the Culpeper hospital who helped start and open the free clinic.
“Most of the staff came to see patients in the clinic and even the pediatricians,” said Gonzalez. “We would always pair a primary care associate with a specialist. Everybody rotated. Virginia has a long tradition of free clinics and I was first exposed to them in Richmond while I was in medical school.”
The doctors continue to volunteer to this day.
Asked about Batiste, Reynolds said he can’t recall a time not seeing the dedicated volunteer on the premises.
“He’s just wonderful. He really is very dedicated to this whole thing,” said Reynolds.
Dr. Gonzalez also recalled the late Bob Hale, a Culpeper hospital pharmacist, as being a major contributor to the free clinic.
“He volunteered to get the pharmacy started and without him, we couldn’t have opened the clinic,” said Dr. Gonzalez. “He set up the pharmacy and handled all of the legal things that needed to be done.”
Dr. Gonzalez concluded by saying that he’s thrilled to see the clinics’ continued success.
“The community stepped up beautifully to keep it going,” he said.
Dr. Wallace said all of the local doctors volunteered from day one.
“We had all worked in free clinics,” said Wallace. “The Culpeper clinic started out helping the working poor who didn’t have insurance and needed care for blood pressure checks, diabetes or cholesterol monitoring.”
“That was what started this clinic in Culpeper,” said Dr. Wallace, who retired two and a half years ago. “Initially free clinics were for acute problems more than chronic.”
Dr. Wallace continues to volunteer because of the need.
“The need is not as great in this county as in a lot of other counties because there is a lot of coverage here and we are very lucky to have a lot of good employers that provide health care for people,” said Wallace.
Jack of all trades
By the time Batiste started volunteering at the free clinic in 1992, he’d already retired as a special agent from his first job: the Federal Bureau of Investigations where he worked from 1966 until 1987.
After landing the job, Batiste, an upstate New York native, was transferred to Springfield before being shipped to Richmond. After two days in the capital, Batiste was transferred to Alexandria before being moved to open a resident agency in Culpeper in 1969.
His one-man FBI office was located on West Davis Street across from the old sheriff’s office. After retiring from the FBI, Batiste became the facilities manager at Culpeper Memorial Hospital where he worked for 10 years from 1987 to 1997.
During this time, the free clinic was only open Thursday evenings, allowing Batiste to work full-time and volunteer a few hours.
“I’m just a volunteer at heart,” he said when asked why he gives up his free time.
For adventure, Batiste has walked the entire Appalachian Trail, twice.
“I’ve been wanting to do it since I was 14,” he said. He’s planning another trek for his 85th birthday.
Dr. Wallace recalls the days of Batiste growing all kinds of peppers and sharing them at the clinic.
“He was the pepper grower and I would bring home those peppers and roast them and keep them for the winter,” remembered Wallace. “He was quite the pepper grower.”
Batiste is also a handyman, fixing minor repairs from relocating the medication room and building the shelves inside the clinic to installing and building a half door for the administration area.
Members of the Free Clinic of Culpeper hosted Oyster Fest, the health care agency’s largest fundraiser, featuring the salt-water delicacy while collecting money for the clinic on Oct.7.
During the event, members proudly shared letters from two state lawmakers.
“It gives me great pleasure to congratulate the Free Clinic of Culpeper on 25 years of operation,” wrote Sen. Tim Kaine in a letter to the clinic. “For the past 25 years, the free clinic has played an instrumental role in health and community support throughout Culpeper. The clinic continues to provide access to health care to those in need, as well as supporting patients who are dealing with ongoing illnesses. As a member of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions committee, I commend the free clinic on this significant milestone and applaud you for all of your incredible work.”
Kaine also added that he’s honored to have witnessed the free clinic’s compassion and dedication when he visited Culpeper in June.
“Through hearing stories from your patients, I was able to see the critical role you play in the community,” concluded Kaine.
Gov. Terry McAuliffe also sent the clinic a certificate of recognition for its achievement.
“For the past 25 years, the staff and volunteers of the Free Clinic of Culpeper have generously given their time, talents and resources to better the Culpeper community and by providing needed medical care and prescriptions, the Free Clinic of Culpeper has assisted thousands of citizens, allowing those citizens to work, volunteer, raise families and live happier, healthier lives.”