GREAT BARRINGTON -- December brightens when you walk into the warm clinic at 777 Main St. This is Volunteers in Medicine (VIM), where dozens of Berkshire residents are delivering free, integrated medical services to people without health insurance -- and loving the work.
"Often personal experiences with health insurance motivates people to volunteer at VIM," explains Susan Minnich, volunteer coordinator.
The volunteers have seen friends or relatives suffer the disastrous consequences of being uninsured, or they have witnessed the extraordinary difference good health insurance can make.
They want to use their skills to make a difference.
"Good! Everything about VIM is good!" said Estella Ortiz Bodner, a certified medical interpreter living in Monterey, who has worked at VIM since it opened in 2004.
As needs have emerged, she said, more services appear. In addition to medicine, VIM now offers dentistry, optometry, mental health counseling, acupuncture, and nutrition services.
"The diversification of health care we can provide is so gratifying," said Dr. Matthew Mandel, who lived a 70-hour-workweek life, running hospital anesthesiology and intensive care units, before he and his family moved to the Berkshires.
VIM's patient population is diverse. Hard times have hit many, including the numbers of hidden people without insurance who keep the county's tourist economy humming all year.
This is VIM's focus because the benefits of accessible health care are tangible.
Emergency room costs drop. Individual treatment is efficient and effective. Practicing good preventive care -- staying well -- lowers everybody's medical costs as it keeps people healthier.
When Arthur Peisner, board chairman, hears people praise VIM volunteers for their generous giving, he smiles.
"The truth? This place is about passion. Everyone who comes here loves it," he said. "That's the common thread. Everything about being here feels good. Doctors and nurses like the patients, like everyone they work with, and love having good work to do. They're not being paid to be here. They do it because they love it."
Peisner fell for VIM before it started, when several friends asked him to facilitate an initial planning retreat. Inspired by the strength of people's commitment to accessible health care and the community, he found himself, in retirement, with a diversity of new friends and skillful, compassionate colleagues who love the Berkshires as much as he does.
"Kindness," said Barbara Horner, a retired intensive care nurse from Pittsfield. "Everything at VIM is about kindness -- how patients and their families are treated and the way everyone there treats each other."
VIM Berkshires is distinguished from other free care clinics around the country by its case management model.
Say a worker injures her back. The pain is so severe that she can't work. Diagnosis, the first step, identifies the problem; a doctor talks with her about anti-inflammatory treatments. But when a nurse practitioner gives her a complete check-up, she finds high blood pressure. Untreated hypertension is endangering the patient's kidneys -- and stress is increasing the likelihood of more problems ahead.
Referring her for acupuncture, mental health and nutritional counseling, doctors will prescribe just enough blood pressure medication to last until her next appointment. She'll stay connected until VIM is certain she's securely on the road to good health.
"Here docs can see patients for 10 minutes or two hours -- as long as they want," Peisner said. "There are no insurance-mandated restrictions. And it's the kind of experience that motivates people to go into medicine in the first place."
Nancy Fernandez Mills, a writer and video producer, has always been interested in health. Long before she and her husband moved to Otis, she became a Kripalu-certified yoga specialist and offered diabetes counseling and health coaching for people with high cholesterol, hypertension and weight management issues. A nutritional counselor and VIM board member, she relishes the chance to work one-on-one with people and feel that she is directly touching individuals' lives, making a difference.
"So much chronic disease is caused by lifestyle, by poor eating," she said. "Helping patients learn how to eat the right foods and cope with their stress is very rewarding.
"Health care is a basic human right that everybody deserves."
Ortiz Bodner feels called to act.
"What's important is serving the community. Everybody's supposed to be doing something," she said. "That's always been my mission, who I am."
"I cannot imagine a better feeling than helping someone who's absolutely stranded," he said. "Either preventively or through treatment, we nip bad things in the bud -- and we cure seriously ill patients, people with no portal. Knowing we've gotten them aboard, given them a gateway to good health? It just feels wonderful."
What's good for some is good for all.
VIM at a glance
What: Volunteers in Medicine, founded in 2004: Free,
high-quality health care and patient case management given in a respectful and
Where: 777 Main St., Great Barrington
Hours: Monday to Friday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.
• More than 125 active clinical and non-clinical volunteers
• More than 1,900 patients and 14,000 patient visits
• Referral Network of 50 Local Healthcare Partners
• Ages range from 19 to 64 -- because federal regulations govern children's health
insurance, and adults over 65 can get medicare.
• Most patients are employed but cannot get insurance.
• VIM is privately funded. More than $400,000 in services, pharmaceuticals and medical supplies donated each year
Information: www.vimberkshires.org, (413) 528-4014