Occupy Medical

What free universal health care looks like

Benjamin hunt cuts hair at the Gorilla Salon

It’s a chilly April day with bursts of sunshine interspersed with blustery wind and rain. It’s not the worst day to be on the streets of Eugene, but it’s not the best day either, especially if you’re ill. The cold wind cuts through you and the rain soaks you, making the shaking and chills of fever feel that much worse; the moments of sun remind you that you have nowhere warm and dry to be, and no one to take care of you.

What do you do if you are homeless, uninsured or just plain broke and you’re sick? Where do you go if you do have a home but the waiting list is too long at the clinic or your insurance isn’t good enough to get you the care you need?

“You can’t just not help people,” says herbalist Sue Sierralupe. She’s the clinic manager for Occupy Medical, a team of volunteers who donate their time, skills and care to making sure anyone and everyone in Eugene has access to health care. From a patient’s perspective, it’s what single-payer health care looks like, Sierralupe says, and it’s free.

On Sundays from noon until 4 pm you can walk up to the former bloodmobile painted red and white and emblazoned “Occupy Medical Mobile Clinic,” that’s parked downtown at the Park Blocks and get anything from a Band-Aid to a prescription for heart medicine. You can also get food, a haircut and proof that someone cares.

Health Care for Everyone

Kathy, wearing leather pants and a pink top and combat boots with pink shoelaces, has just been on the Occupy Medical bus to see Dr. Leigh Saint-Louis. Afterward, she lingers and chats with some of the volunteers, Occupiers and patients who surround the bus and medical tents. Some drink tea; others eat food brought this time by Central Presbyterian Church and other times by Food Not Bombs. A disheveled couple sits on a bench, a little at a distance, agitated, somewhat aggressive, but dealt with carefully by the volunteers of Occupy Medical, who want to make sure the couple gets the health care they need, despite behaviors that might get them kicked out of a conventional medical office.

Kathy’s medical needs are a little unconventional. She was the eldest son of a Florida cop, she says, and she has been on the road since she was 13, recently spending 14 months in a recovery house. She’s transgender, male-to-female, and has begun taking hormones. Finding a doctor who is not only sympathetic but understands the medical needs of someone who is transgender is not easy, but Kathy found Saint-Louis (or as the Occupiers call her, Dr. Leigh) and Occupy Medical, who not only treat her for free, but recommended a method of taking the hormones that was better than the estrogen pills Kathy was taking.

Photos by Rob Sydor. Kathy awaits her appointment with Dr. Saint-Louis
Occupy Medical‘s revamped bloodmobile
Sue Sierralupe

Everything at the clinic is at no cost to the patients and everything is donated, from the work of Saint-Louis and two other medical doctors, to bandages and prescriptions. It’s truly universal health care, or as Sierralupe says, what single-payer could be. Single-payer is basically when one entity, a government-run organization, collects all health care fees and pays out all health care costs. It gets rid of administrative overhead and the confusion of billing.

In the case of Occupy Medical (OM), someone like Kathy can come to the bus, get checked in at the intake tent — OM takes names and birthdates for records tracking but allows people to remain anonymous — get medical care, wound care, medicines or herbs, if they prefer them to pharmaceuticals, and treatment. All in one place and all for free. Care in single-payer is based on need, not on the ability to pay. At Occupy Medical all the care is at no cost to the patient, and no one is turned away. “You don’t have to come to our clinic and prove that you are poor enough to need our services,” Saint-Louis says. “You don’t have to show us you’re uninsured.” The clinic treats everyone and anyone, first-come, first-served.

“We’re really showing people what it would be like if people really had direct access to health care regardless of their income status,” Saint-Louis says. Patients come with anything from wounds that need first aid, to chronic conditions like diabetes that require monitoring.

Gorilla Salon

Julie Lambert stopped by Occupy to get some medical issues taken care of, and says that while there she fortuitously discovered the hair care salon. She’s been in between jobs, but full of hope about her upcoming job interviews. “My confidence is high,” she says as hairstylist Benjamin Hunt snips at her long, curly hair. “And it adds to my confidence that I look good,” she says.

Hunt, retired from London Hair Salon and Spa in Eugene, donates his hair care skills to Occupy Medical. “This is more fun than I’ve ever had in my life,” he says, wearing his red Occupy bandana and wielding a spray bottle and scissors. He calls the tent where he sets up his hair salon a “gorilla” salon, not a “guerilla” salon, because, as Lambert pipes up, “gorillas groom one another.”

Hunt says as he works on people’s hair, he can also talk to them, “psycho-hair-apy,” he continues with the wordplay. But as much fun as Hunt has, he takes it seriously, too. While he trims, cuts and combs, people tell him things in the comfort of a nonmedical setting that can help their treatment when they see the doctor. It’s part of the mental health aspect of Occupy Medical. The attention makes people feel better about themselves and look better as they apply for jobs or go about their day. Hunt says he sees about 10 to 12 people during his Sunday stints. Sometimes it’s for a full cut and sometimes, as in the case of a young man named Marcus, who comes in once a week, he just combs the tangles out of his long hair. It’s a human connection that treats the body and the mind.

Meeting People Where They Are

Brooke Robertshaw is OM’s statistician, as well as pharmacist’s assistant. She has a Ph.D. in instructional technology and runs the numbers: In the once-a-week four-hour sessions OM sees about 40 patients, helps about 10 people get prescriptions and has about a 40 percent plus return rate. Many of those prescriptions are for heart conditions, she says, as she ducks under one of the Occupy Medical tents to get out of the rain.

“We meet people where they are,” Robertshaw echoes the statements of other volunteers. She expects the numbers to go up as more and more people hear about the clinic. The addition of the bus earlier this year increased the numbers because the visibility of the clinic increased, and she says as the health care safety net becomes even less of a safety net and as more people come through town in the summer months, she expects the number of patients to go up. “This clinic meets a need others miss,” she says.

“People get turned away for the smallest infractions,” Becca Perry, OM’s mental health coordinator, says of other medical clinics. She says for the mentally ill, their behavior has historically often kept them from accessing health care. Because Occupy Medical is partially outside — two or three tents are pitched near the bus — the volunteers can see people outdoors, not in a traditional medical setting that might make them feel trapped, bring back bad experiences or just plain make them nervous.

Sierralupe says that just giving someone something basic, like vitamins or Band-Aids can make a difference. Just like one tiny negative thing can be what sends someone over the edge, one tiny positive thing can start an avalanche of care, she says. “We give them the help when they need it in the place where they will accept it,” she says.

“You simply have to keep the momentum going in a positive direction,” she says. “Our little clinic does just that. We give little nudges. That’s why we get to see so many people turn their lives around. That’s why we get to see so many miracles.”

It Takes a Village 

The list of those who donate to Occupy Medical is long and growing all the time. Sierralupe says sometimes people just drop by with things they think might be needed. Full City Coffee, which sits only yards from the weekend parking spot for the bus, has given the group hot water for wound care. McKenzie Mist has donated three 3-gallon jugs of water, to be refilled as needed, and a pump. The city of Eugene set up a Porta-Potty (necessary for pregnancy and urine tests), and help and medical supplies have come from Lane County Public Health, St. Vincent de Paul, Medical Teams International, PeaceHealth, Sacred Heart and Whitebird Clinic.

The bus itself is the result of grants from the Oregon Community Foundation that CALC (Community Alliance of Lane County) helped Occupy Medical write, Sierralupe says. In addition to Saint-Louis and the medical doctors, the clinic has pharmacists, nurses, nursing students, massage therapists and volunteers from all walks of life.

Saint-Louis has been volunteering with Occupy Medical for about a year; she started after seeing media reports about the free downtown clinic. Sierralupe was part of the beginning of Occupy Medical at the Eugene Occupy camp that was later shut down by the police. She and other medics were treating people at the camp in a first-aid tent. Slowly the medical cases became more complicated than basic first aid as people realized that there was somewhere to get help.

After the Occupy camp was shut down in December 2011, those people, some of whom had serious medical conditions, lost that access to care. So in February 2012, the medics began offering free medical care downtown, and Occupy Medical was born.

Julie Lambert sends an email a couple days after her trip to Occupy Medical and haircut: “There’s more to the story,” she writes: “I nailed all three job interviews I had this week, so now I can choose how I work.”

She says that when she was in Arizona she was making more than $50,000 annually, but, “when I came here, I had no job, no friends or family locally, only a fierce determination to become successful, and my medical needs threatened that.”

Occupy Medical provides hope, Lambert writes, and “sometimes, that is all a person needs to stay in forward motion.” Her trip to Occupy Medical gave her what she needed to recover, she says, and she will now be volunteering there so she can pay it forward.

“Our job is to heal, not to judge,” Sierralupe says.

You can find Occupy Medical from noon to 4 pm Sundays at the Park Blocks (8th and Oak). The list of donors as well as the list of needs is long. Go to occupymedics.wordpress.com or call 541-316-5743 for more information, to volunteer, donate or find out more about getting help.


The gaps in American health care coverage are many, but so are the groups who try to fill those gaps: Volunteers in Medicine (VIM), Whitebird Clinic and community health centers, such as RiverStone, operate alongside Occupy Medical in Lane County.

DeLeesa Meashintubby gave up a more lucrative health-care career to work her way up from phlebotomist to the executive director of the VIM clinic. She says more than 78,000 people in Lane County are uninsured, and VIM gives care to those uninsured people ages 18 to 64. “That’s a small town of its own,” Meashintubby says.

If the clinic has to turn someone away then that person is given a referral sheet for everything from dental care (Whitebird and LCC) to eye care (the Lion’s Club) and Meashintubby says she and other doctors and volunteers often make calls to help people out because “We want to make it easy on the patient.”

The Springfield VIM clinic, which has a bus stop just outside its doors, has 13 exam rooms and sees 500 patients a month. To be seen at VIM your income for the past three months has to be between 85 and 200 percent of the Federal Poverty Level and you can’t be eligible for care through any other health care provider. It offers care to undocumented immigrants, as well as translators to those who don’t speak English.

VIM is gearing up for its big annual fundraiser, One Fine Day on April 17, with “a silent auction composed of fashion accessories (handbags, scarves and jewelry), art pieces, gift certificates, luggage, antiques and more.” Last year’s event raised $300,000.

For more on VIM and its services, call 541-685-1800 or go to www.vim-clinic.org or 2260 Marcola Road, Springfield.

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