Four Days, 4,000 Patients

Volunteers help provide free healthcare services to thousands.

Radios and interpreters, volunteers and patients — here’s how UW Medicine faculty Rick Arnold, M.D., sums up his day at the free Seattle/King County Clinic:

  • 5:30 a.m. I check in with my team at KeyArena. We pick up our radios and make sure the exam rooms are set up.
  • 6:30 a.m. The doors open. Hundreds of people are already lined up in a giant heated tent; some have been waiting overnight with blankets and sleeping bags.
  • 7 a.m. We hold an orientation for the medical volunteers; many of them will be here for 12 hours or more.
  • 7 a.m.–6 p.m. I’m busy consulting with other doctors and arranging for interpreters. And I help decide how many patients the clinic can admit per day. It’s hard. But we don’t want people to wait in line if we won’t be able to get to them.
  • 6:30 p.m. I debrief the day with other medical directors.
  • 8 p.m. Time to head home. I’m tired, and my feet hurt — I definitely got my steps in today! But volunteering is incredibly energizing. I’ll be ready to do it all again tomorrow.

In late September, Arnold and thousands of other medical professionals and volunteers took over KeyArena, transforming the building’s basketball court and luxury suites into something quite different: a sprawling free clinic providing medical, dental, vision and social services for approximately 4,000 underserved and vulnerable people.

Arnold, the Seattle/King County Clinic’s medical director for primary care, was serving his third year as a volunteer. He helped other providers and medical volunteers, reviewing lab test results and connecting patients with follow-up care and treatment.

“I wish I could do more,” he says. “It’s an amazing experience to be there, and it fills a giant gap in the healthcare system.”

For many patients, the clinic is a long-overdue chance to get care for chronic health conditions like diabetes — or to receive treatment that they couldn’t otherwise afford.

“They are so incredibly grateful that someone cares enough to provide these services for free,” says Arnold. “Patients may have been waiting for months in agony to get some help, and they are finally able to get it addressed.”

The Seattle/King County Clinic was organized by civic agencies, nonprofits, private businesses and healthcare organizations; UW Medicine is an event partner and provides clinical volunteers, equipment and medication.

Still, the clinic is a stopgap. While the volunteers did a tremendous amount of good, a four-day clinic simply can’t address the huge, ongoing need for healthcare.

“The need doesn’t go away,” Arnold says.

A version of this story originally appeared in the Huddle.