April 20, 2009 12:00 PM

Tandy Belt tried to disappear into the crowd as she stood in line, ashamed, at the Eureka Springs Christian Health Outreach clinic on a chilly fall evening two years ago. “I was wearing a borrowed sweat suit, no socks, and I was shaking,” recalls Tandy, 56, who found herself penniless and lacking health insurance after a financially disastrous divorce. Seeing her discomfort, Dr. Dan Bell, the free clinic’s cofounder, put his arm around her shoulders. “How are you?” he asked in his gentle drawl. Ten minutes later Tandy walked out, her blood-pressure prescription filled, her shame eased. “Without this,” she says, “I don’t know what would have happened to me.”

If it were up to Dan Bell, no one in this Arkansas resort town in the Ozark Mountains would ever worry about how to pay for health care again. And these days, far fewer need to, thanks to the twice-monthly clinic he and wife Suzie, 57, started in a church gym in November 2005. Staffed entirely by 200 volunteers from town—hairdressers and secretaries and loan officers work alongside off-duty doctors and nurses—the health center has treated about 1,200 people, many of them uninsured minimum-wage workers who haven’t set foot in a physician’s office in years. “I’d hear about people struggling to afford the doctor, and the next thing you’d know they’d be in the emergency room with some major disease,” says Dan, 59, who has practiced family medicine for 25 years in Eureka Springs. “This was one thing we could do.” In a region hit hard by a decline in construction and where nearly half of the town’s 2,300 residents lack insurance, the clinic, says Mayor Dani Joy, “fills such a void.”

What makes it work: Everyone has a job. Converting the gymnasium at Faith Christian Family Church into a walk-in clinic on the second and fourth Thursday of every month, a small army of volunteers takes to its work like a theater crew setting up a show. Up go partitions to create examination rooms; in comes a mobile EKG and blood-pressure monitors. Retired jeweler Carmen Smith draws on her experience as a former nurse to take temperatures and blood pressure. Hairstylist Barbara Dicks helps Suzie, a speech pathologist, handle patient relations. Computer analyst Sam Ward runs the system for the clinic’s pharmacy. “We do this out of love for our fellow man,” says Sam, “and we’re all getting something back.”

Among the grateful patients: Dale Ertel, 56, who had gone without prescribed prostate medication for four years; now Dale, who makes $13,000 a year delivering newspapers and running an educational exhibit, has his prescription renewed every three months. “I used to be so scared about my health,” he says. “This place is a blessing.” Virginia Hillman fell into a severe depression after her husband died; Dan Bell got her on medication while teaching her some coping skills. “Dr. Bell,” says Virginia, 57, “helped me get back on my feet.”

Things are looking up for Tandy too. She’s newly remarried, has a job as a marketing director and, after losing weight, no longer needs blood-pressure medication. She hopes to return to the clinic—only this time as a volunteer. These days, she says, “I feel pretty strong.”

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