Last week, when the call came late in the afternoon that someone had canceled an appointment with the physical therapy students at Samaritan's Touch, Hanan Shalash didn't hesitate to take that slot.
Shalash had arthroscopic knee surgery in January for torn cartilage. She was told to get physical therapy and did until her insurance ran out. When the allowable visits ended, Shalash was left with pain.
"I can't afford it. It is too expensive," she said of physical therapy. Then her therapist " told me to come here."
"Here" is the new location for Samaritan's Touch, a student-run free physical therapy clinic that operates two evenings a week.
That's right. No strings. Completely free. How often do you hear that in a discussion about health care?
Samaritan's Touch was established in 2001 to serve the uninsured and the under-insured by Lynn English, associate professor and director of clinical education for the University of Kentucky physical therapy program.
She set it up so second-year PT students would run the clinic, gaining experience in management and hands-on treatments.
Until January, it operated one night a week out of a conference room at the Salvation Army's Arnold Hanger Lodge. Patients would start lining up 90 minutes before the doors opened because the clinic didn't take appointments.
"They would wait and wait and wait," English said. "It was not a good system."
"Now we can take about six people per night, where usually we did four at the most," said Tiffany Fergason, a student who volunteers at the clinic. "There was no privacy ... no equipment. We would use cans of soup" for therapy, she said.
English began looking for a larger location in July, sending e-mails asking if anyone knew of a suitable place.
She expected to find a storefront and then have to find a way to equip it. But a colleague suggested the UK HealthCare Good Samaritan Physical Therapy Center, 125 East Maxwell Street, Suite 101.
Minutes after sitting down with UK HealthCare officials, the deal was done. The clinic opened at its current location on Jan. 11, but its grand opening celebration will be at noon Wednesday. They wanted to work out the bugs quietly first. Since moving, the student-run clinic is open 5:30 to 8 p.m. Tuesdays and Thursdays.
The extra day means more students can get more experience before their required clinicals in their third year, and more patients can receive treatment, English said. "My goal is to have all levels (of students) involved at some point, but we want to see how this works," she said.
English said she has reached out to free clinics throughout the area, letting them know the PT clinic is accepting patients. Most of their referrals come from the Lexington-Fayette County Health Department.
That's how Glenda Sellers learned of the clinic. Sellers said she experienced nerve damage during a 2006 hip replacement surgery that affected her foot.
Her doctor told her the use of her foot "would come back in six to nine months, but it's been five years," she said.
Sellers has pain in her back, hip and foot but has no pain medication. She said a physical therapist came to her home for a week after the surgery; since then, she's been trying to do things herself.
Chad Ford, a PT student, worked with her, showing Sellers various exercises and then giving her an illustration to take home to continue the treatment.
Although she continues to struggle, Sellers said that since she began coming once a week for treatments three weeks ago, the pain has decreased. On a scale of 1 to 10, "the pain was an eight but now it is a six," she said. "They are trying to get me in twice a week. I feel some relief," Sellers said, "but it is going to take a while."
Samaritan's Touch is allowed access to all the clinic's equipment and computers. Some equipment, such as walking aids, are donated and given to patients, Fergason said. "If you need it and we have it, you can have it. And if anyone in the community has equipment, we will take it."
Three students to offer treatment and one student coordinator are available each night and are supervised by a licensed physical therapist. Eighteen students volunteer with the clinic along with several physical therapists, so each serves only a few times a year.
Sharon Figgs has come to the clinic for two weeks since she fell while recovering from heart bypass and colon cancer surgery, and pneumonia. When she fell, she injured her shoulder, but she doesn't have health insurance. Her cousin, who is associated with Lexington Rescue Mission, told her to go to the clinic.
"The treatments have been wonderful," Figgs said. "I know my pain has decreased about 70 percent."
Ford, who was also working with Figgs, said her range of motion had increased 60 degrees. "That's a lot," he said. "This is her fourth visit in two weeks."
Figgs said she continues the exercises at home because "exercise is important." If anyone asks, "I'm going to tell everyone that this is available and that they provide a good service," she said. "I am so blessed."
So, too, is Billy Peavler, whose knee gave out last year, forcing him to have knee replacement surgery in April. By June, his insurance that paid for physical therapy, along with the job he had held for more than 22 years, disappeared.
"There I was stuck with no insurance," he said. "I didn't know what I was going to do."
He visited the health department and was told about Samaritan's Touch. "People have been good to me here," he said. "The whole staff has been good, working with me twice a week."