Notes from a free clinic on Pittsburgh’s South Side
I am a Pittsburgh National Health Corps AmeriCorps member serving at the Birmingham Free Clinic. I have repeated this phrase countless times throughout my service term, but this is the first time I will stop and ask myself: “What is the Birmingham Free Clinic?” I have avoided deeper reflection- and writing this blog post- because coming up with a coherent response that portrays Birmingham as I know it is difficult. Finding the right set of words to tell the right story has consumed me, and proven to be a fruitless pursuit. One thing I feel to be certain: Birmingham is so much more than what my single perspective can offer.
From the outside, Birmingham is a building that sits at the corner of Jane and 20th St in Pittsburgh’s South Side. It is a relatively unmarked building, which explains why so many of the free taxis we call for patients cancel the ride after giving up hope of ever finding us. And though we have been at this address for over a year now, the threat of relocation looms large and lives as a ghost in the abandoned, crumbling office spaces that occupy the floors above our ground-level suite.
If you’re able to locate our front door, however, you can step inside to find what Birmingham really looks like. To say it is the smiling faces that greet you would be 1.) cheesy and 2.) insufficient. It’s not just the smiling face; it’s the reflection of that smile in the patient who just walked through the door and finally feels seen when they are greeted by name and asked a genuine “how are you?” And when there is no smile- often to be in our patients’ shoes and wear a smile is a task requiring a superhero’s bravery- we pause and give a few moments to hear why there is no smile. Those faces mark Birmingham more than any blinking neon sign ever could.
To be sure this idealistic vision of a free clinic is not contained squarely in my own head, I asked one of our patients if they would be willing to share a few words about what Birmingham means to them. Here is what they said:
“Every time I leave my heart is fuller and healthier. [Here, we shared a laugh because this patient was followed closely at Birmingham after two major heart operations.] I can’t… It’s difficult to put into words what something like this does when you’re scared cause not only are you sick but your funds are not what they were and the options that you’re given are so tiny.
And you guys just opened the world back up again.”
To me, this is the best description of Birmingham and its services, its role in the community, and its indisputable power to change lives. Opening doors for patients who have few options and even fewer advocates is at the heart of what we do (pun intended). I am just one of two AmeriCorps members serving at Birmingham this year, and there are dozens more that precede me. But I will not say that this patient is just one out of thousands of patients that Birmingham has cared for since its doors opened in 1994. To say that would be to erase the spirit of Birmingham altogether, because at Birmingham, every single story is treated as one worth publishing.
2100 Jane Street
Pittsburgh, PA 15203