"Demand (for the clinic) has definitely continued to go up," said interim director Dr. Michelle Luttrell, speaking of the years since the recession. "Even with the Affordable Care Act, we anticipate it to go up. Many of our patients, even with subsidies, cannot afford to get insurance through the Affordable Care Act."
With many still jobless in Silicon Valley — or without a job that provides health care benefits — the free health clinic saves countless local residents and their families from the effects of disease, and even death.
Located at the end of a long hallway in the basement under the El Camino YMCA, the clinic sees 530 patients a month, and 1,200 new patients a year. It is run by the Rotary Club, along with 11 other clinics like it in the Bay Area, and relies on donations and 265 active volunteers to stay afloat.
RotaCare is one of several recipients of the Voice's Holiday Fund this year, which raises money for local non-profit service agencies. If it were to receive an influx of cash, Luttrell said the clinic would spend it on orthopedic expertise and equipment, as well as casting equipment and training for broken bones so patients don't have to be sent to the county hospital in San Jose.
"Honestly, one of our biggest needs right now is for an orthopedic doctor," Luttrell said. "Our patients are at very high risk of musculature injury. Many of our patients are laborers and are high risk for a back injury, a shoulder injury, a knee injury. Having physical therapy would be amazing."
The clinic asks patients to write about how the clinic has been beneficial to them. "I attribute my survival and quick recovery" to RotaCare and Dr. Michelle Whetzel, wrote one patient. The doctor diagnosed his Type 2 diabetes while he was unemployed and without health insurance and took an "aggressive stance" in treating it.
"I am alive because of RotaCare," wrote a woman whose breast cancer was discovered by a RotaCare doctor.
One family wrote that they did not qualify for government health-care, but during during a period of unemployment and uncertainty, RotaCare provided their young children with check-ups, immunizations, flu shots and free medication.
One patient said she had waited on the phone 30 minutes just to get her appointment at the clinic, which takes calls for appointments only on Mondays and Wednesday at 2 p.m., first-come, first-served."It's really expensive to go see the doctor," she said. "The clinic helps a lot of people, it really does."
"We treat patients with dignity and it is an environment that is quite unique because it is volunteer-driven," Luttrell said. "We don't just help keep one person healthy, we keep families healthy and we keep communities healthy. From a public health perspective, it makes a lot of sense. We prevent a lot of disease."
The 265 volunteers at the clinic range from doctors and nurses to anyone willing to help out at the front desk, like sociology student Angeles Guzman, who said she enjoys having conversations with patients. "You don't have to be a doctor to help out people," she said.
One volunteer doctor said he had just retired, but found it a pleasure to come into the clinic one afternoon a week, where he isn't rushed and can "treat the whole person."
"It's hard to give it up completely," oncologist Shaun Hung said of being retired from a long career in medicine. "I really appreciate the opportunity to work here."
He said he wondered why more of his retired colleagues don't also take up the opportunity.
Director Luttrell said one of the the most surprising things about working in the clinic is the growing number of unemployed patients in their 50s.
"It's really hard for them to find a job — that's always surprising to me," Luttrell said. For example, "an engineer with 20 years of experience who is unemployed and who has never been uninsured in their entire life."
Luttrell said she is also surprised by "the lack of awareness of how many people in the community are uninsured. Silicon Valley is booming with wealth and technology but there's a gap and there are many people in this area who don't have basic health care and there are many people in this area who don't realize that many people exist."