I am the executive director of the Oasis Free Clinics here in Brunswick.  I have been in this role for three and a half years, and I consider it an honor every day. The Oasis Free Clinics provide free medical and dental care to low income, uninsured adults who live in Freeport, Durham, Harpswell, Brunswick and Sagadahoc County.  We also connect people with free prescription medications, working with the pharmaceutical free care programs.  What started as a once a month clinic has grown into a thriving, five days a week organization that serves over 600 of our neighbors. 

As the executive director of Oasis, my job is overseeing the organization, making sure that we have the administrative and financial resources to accomplish our goals.  I work closely with our board of directors, as well as our clinical, medical and dental directors, to develop our strategy, respond to community needs, and operate efficiently.  I am not a medical provider, so anything that is not in direct support of patient care usually falls to me.  Budgets, marketing, fundraising, personnel, facilities, computers, you name it. 

As is often the case for our patients, my path to Oasis was not a straight line. 

I grew up in a small, poor town in the mountains of East Tennessee.  Growing up in Appalachia, there were few doctors and even fewer dentists, so many people were missing teeth, had a limp, or had unchecked diabetes.  My dad was a third-generation coal miner, and over the years, my family had health insurance intermittently through my dad’s work.  When he did, it was catastrophic coverage only and no dental insurance. My parents could see no reason to go to the doctor if you weren’t on your death bed.  The first time I went to the doctor was at 21 – at the health center when I was in collegeI didn’t go to the dentist until I was 24.  I’ve had health insurance ever since.  The rest of my family hasn’t been so lucky. 

My brother in law, Mark, worked for a general contractor who couldn’t afford to offer benefits. Consequently, when Mark fell off a ladder, hurting his back, he was let go.  Because he couldn’t afford to get the medical care he needed, his back issues only got worse.  He once stood at 6 feet.  Now he’s about 5’8.” It took years, but he eventually got disability and with that Medicare, and he now has the healthcare he needs.  He’s 54hasn’t worked in over 10 years and never will.  

And then there’s my dad.  Thanks to lack of dental access, he had all of his upper front teeth pulled when I was in high school.  Years of manual labor brought aches, and I’ve seen him take more ibuprofen than you can imagine.   

When my dad was 67, he developed double vision, so after my stepmom had nagged him for weeks, he went to the ophthalmologist.  After a few minutes of looking at his eyes, the doctor turned the lights back on and told my dad there wasn’t anything she could do for him.  It seemed that he had a tumor pressing on his optic nerve, causing his double vision.  Undiagnosed lung cancer, caused by years of smoking and breathing in coal dust, had spread to his brain.  A year later, he would be gone.   

When I was in college, I knew I wanted to do something in the “helping” field.  I got my undergraduate degree in speech pathology but knew that wasn’t a good fit for me.   After some struggle, I found myself in the masters of public health program taking a community health education class.   

Sitting in my first class, I realized that what I experienced growing up – people not having access to healthcare, losing their teeth because they couldn’t afford to go to the dentist – things that people accepted as the norm – they weren’t like that in every community.  Not every community struggled the way mine did.  There was even a field of study, public health, that worked with populations of people to improve systems in order to improve health.  I had found a way to help people through education, advocacy and systematic change that could make a difference so that they wouldn’t have to choose between rent, medication or groceries.   

Since then, I’ve had a lot of great jobs that allowed me to put those principles of public health and social justice to work.  I’ve had the opportunity to work in a variety of settings and on many topics, including immunizations, cancer, teen mental health, and HIV/STD prevention.   

And now I’m at Oasis.  I love this organization and what we offer to our community.  Our goal is to give our patients the best care with dignity, respect and compassion, no matter what circumstance brought them to our door.  This is the place I wish had been available to my family when they needed it.  As executive director, it is a privilege to play a role in assuring that those who need it have access to our free medical and dental care, now and in the future. 

The Oasis Free Clinics provides free medical, dental and prescription assistance services to low income, uninsured adults living in Freeport, Durham, Brunswick, Harpswell and Sagadahoc County.  For more information, call 721-9277 or visit www.OasisFreeClinics.org. 

Anita Ruff is the executive director of Oasis Free Clinics. Giving Voice is a weekly collaboration among four local non-profit service agencies to share information and stories about their work in the community. 

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