Andree Appel, then-clinical director and Dr. Rick Elsaesser, a dentist at the Oasis Free Clinic in Brunswick, attend a ribbon-cutting ceremony at the clinic’s current location on Baribeau Drive in 2016. The clinic celebrates its 25th anniversary this year. Courtesy / Anita Ruff

BRUNSWICK — Dr. Peter McGuire’s interest in providing medical care to the less fortunate began during his time as a U.S. Army doctor in the Vietnam War, when he set up a clinic in a small Vietnamese village.

“That was where my interest in caring for people who have no care started,” he said this week.

McGuire’s altruistic motives led to the founding of the Oasis Free Clinic in Brunswick, which is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year. It’s come a long way since its humble founding in the 1990s, but it still offers free care to people who can’t afford medical care or health insurance – all without federal or state funding.

Today, Oasis has a permanent location at 66 Baribeau Drive in Brunswick and operates with a staff of 30 people, plus so many volunteers an exact number is not available. It runs on an annual budget of $400,000, paid for by donations from foundations, individuals and organizations such as churches, according to Anita Ruff, the clinic’s executive director. She has been with the clinic for the past five years, and recalls the computerization of records that came in 2018.

“We had paper charts when I came here,” Ruff recalled.

Oasis is more than just a clinic for the homeless, but it remains a place for people who can’t afford any other help. Ruff said the clinic serves the needy — those with no health insurance, and with annual incomes at or below 200% of the federal poverty level, or just under $26,000 for a single person. Patients also have to live in the clinic’s coverage area: Freeport, Durham, Harpswell, Brunswick and Sagadahoc County.

Dr. Peter McGuire, founder of the Oasis Free Clinic in Brunswick. Courtesy / Anita Ruff

McGuire said the dream of a free clinic took shape in the 1980s, when he was running a private practice in Brunswick and was on the board of directors of the Telford-Oasis Program, a nonprofit which operated a local homeless shelter. McGuire said he recalled hearing that homeless people who needed medical care, even for simple ailments or minor injuries, would get sent to local emergency rooms.

“It caused a bit of anger on the part of the emergency room staff,” McGuire said.

After visiting Boston City Hospital and taking note of a program there that offered free health care to the homeless, McGuire decided to set up his own program in Maine, using the Boston example as a model.

It started very small, with McGuire, friends Dr. David Howes and Dr. John Kanwit seeing patients on Tuesdays at the shelter. But it quickly became popular and cut down on patients arriving at the emergency rooms with non-emergency needs.

One Harpswell man, who declined to be identified, said he has been a patient at the clinic for years. He said he remembers those early days. A lobster fisherman, he would take a man who worked on his boat to get treatment several times for a chronic health problem. The patient said he remembered McGuire, noting what a good friend he was, asked when the last time he himself had been to the doctor.

When the man said he couldn’t recall, he said McGuire replied, “Get your ass in here!” and the man has been getting regular checkups and care there ever since.

The man said there were quite a few patients seeking care back then, but the doctors, all working on their own time, wouldn’t close up office hours until they saw every patient looking for help.

“Those people were wonderful,” the man recalled.

Nurse Practitioner Michelle Barber checks a patient’s blood pressure at Oasis Free Clinic. The clinic is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year. Courtesy / Anita Ruff

McGuire didn’t have to wait long for help. Many of his friends, he said, were specialists, and when they learned that some of McGuire’s patients at the shelter might need specialized care they began volunteering their time, too. That spirit of the local medical community volunteering continues today, according to Dr. Jeffrey Maher. He started volunteering at the clinic in 2008. Back then, he said, he ran a small family practice, and spent his spare time treating patients at Oasis.

“We’d come after hours and we’d treat whoever showed up,” he said.

Maher said he now works as student medical director at Bowdoin College, but he still volunteers at the clinic.

“I think it’s just a different kind of reward,” he said.

Despite its growth, Oasis still relies heavily upon its volunteers. Ruff said the clinic has a staff of seven, including dental workers and a nurse practitioner, but in the 2020 fiscal year, the clinic also had 110 volunteers, including doctors, dentists, hygienists, administrators, committee members and other volunteers who logged a total of 2,465 hours.

“We couldn’t do our work without our volunteers,” Ruff said.

Today, McGuire, now 79, no longer practices medicine, but still volunteers for Oasis as a fundraiser. He said if he stopped helping the clinic, “I’d feel a loss in my life.” When asked about the longtime support he and the clinic have had from people volunteering to help others, he said it all comes from a commonsense form of human kindness.

“I think it’s something that anyone would do,” he said. “It’s contagious.”

Sean Murphy 780-9094

Email: [email protected]

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