Dr. Joe Wilber passed away Sunday, April 3rd, 2011
This particular Thursday the waiting room at Good Samaritan Health & Wellness Center is SRO––Standing Room Only. This Thursday is not unique. It’s like any other day at Pickens’ free medical clinic.
If you haven’t been, drive by Good Sam during their regular hours and see for yourself. The parking lot is almost always spilling over, cars teetering on grassy banks and rocky outskirts. Since opening nearly nine years ago, the free medical clinic has accumulated 6,800 patient files and has a staggering 14,000 patient visits a year during its limited hours of operation: 8:30 a.m. to 1 p.m., Monday through Friday.
Some patients have appointments, but many of them don’t. They walk in with hopes of getting desperately needed medical care they can’t afford otherwise.
“We’re the largest practice in town,” said Dr. Joe Wilber, who was recruited by Drs. John Spitznagel and Al Hallum to help open Good Sam in 2002, and who has since volunteered at the clinic three to four days a week.
“The patients are very nice people with terrible bad luck,” he went on. “All of them are poor, and they have no health insurance, no Medicare, no Medicaid, and a lot of them are out of work, so we supply everything.”
By “everything” Dr. Wilber means primary medical care, dental care, eye examinations and glasses, mental health and diabetic counseling and X-ray and laboratory services.
Even the prescriptions are free.
But after being diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s disease in September of 2010, Dr. Wilber has been forced to resign from the clinic he has called home for so long.
“I had gotten so weak from my Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis,” said Dr. Wilber, who is beginning to have visible issues with his mobility. “Most people know it as Lou Gehrig’s disease,” he added. “It’s a deterioration of the nerve cells in the spinal chord. They don’t know what causes it, and there’s no treatment. It usually ends up with paralysis of your swallowing, so you have to be tube fed or you are unable to breathe because your diaphragm is gone. You have to have a lung machine and you can’t get around.
“I thought I could work as long as I could, then this past December I got so weak I could hardly write or walk,” he said.
Anyone who has met Dr. Wilber knows what a kind, warm man he is. He studied medicine at Harvard and maintains a modest, genteel air about him. Even as you see overt signs that his body is failing, you can tell he has a robust character.
Dr. Wilber first visited Jasper in 1950 with his soon-to-be-wife, whose family had a summer home at Tate Mountain Estates.
“I came here, and E.A. and C.J. Roper were the doctors in town, and they had that hospital there in that corner. So after we graduated, I took an internship in Boston and took a residency at Grady. We eventually decided to live in Atlanta.”
Dr. Wilber moved to Atlanta in 1953 where he had an internal medical practice until 1984 and then quit to work full time in public health in HIV/AIDS clinics.
He worked at Grady in their HIV/AIDS clinic and was instrumental in setting up HIV clinics in health departments around the state.
Dr. Wilber then retired in 1994 and moved to Jasper full time, when he began working in the Dalton HIV clinic and the Pickens County Health Department.
“At that time they were just starting the Good Samaritan,” Dr. Wilber said. “We started working on that in about 2000. The clinic opened in 2002 and I started three days and then four days a week. Now that I can’t work, to be honest with you, I’m bored stiff.”
Good Sam’s Executive Director Carole Maddux says it’s not easy to talk about Dr. Wilber now that he has left the clinic, citing his overwhelming compassion and generosity.
“He was such a bedrock of this clinic,” Maddux said. “He is really missed tremendously by volunteers and patients in an inexpressible way. His smile. His caring. I’ve never known a doctor who has cared so deeply about his patients.
“One of the things we have to manage as much as his absence is the grief of everyone here,” she added. “We had seen the fatigue in his face before he left. He was so much more than a doctor. We are all concerned about his well-being.”
Now Good Sam is left with a sizable hole in its licensed volunteer staff. According to the executive director, there are 400 volunteers total, but just 16 are licensed to write prescriptions.
“I worked four days a week,” Dr. Wilber said. “I don’t know how they do it now. What we really need are more doctors, general practitioners, and family-type doctors and nurse practitioners and physicians’ assistants. They can all write prescriptions and treat patients on their own.”
Maddux calls Dr. Wilber “irreplaceable,” having also been an instrumental part of the Thursday diabetes clinics as well as primary overseer of the Patients Assistant Program, which helped patients apply for free prescriptions through pharmacy companies.
“I can’t quite tell yet if [his absence] is going to affect the wait times,” Maddux said. “Other doctors have been great about stepping up and adding a day here or there, but Dr. Wilber was the MD who oversaw the Patients Assistant Program. We have an entire department dedicated to that.
“I’m also concerned about the diabetic clinic on Thursdays,” she added. “It’s a great asset to patients. We’ve had a wonderful response and have seen an increase in health of our diabetic patients with those clinics.”
Maddux says there are only three doctors, including Dr. Wilber, who were specially trained in diabetics, and, because of the nature of volunteer work, having just two specialized doctors could threaten the consistency of the program.
“It can be an issue of having two doctors because all physicians are volunteers and they fill in for other doctors around the country or want to take vacation,” Maddux said, “which I perfectly understand. So we can easily be down to one or none.”
Dr. Wilber and Maddux say hours for volunteers are light and extremely flexible. They also stressed that working at a free clinic is a different animal than working at a traditional practice.
“They can work one or two half days a week, or one every two weeks,” Dr. Wilber said. “It’s really whatever they can do. But I’ve enjoyed it, and I want to emphasize how fun it is to practice there,” he added. “You get all the time you want with your patients. You never have to send a bill, which is the best part. You can spend time and do whatever is necessary and hopefully get everything you need.”
Maddux echoed Dr. Wilber’s enthusiasm about practicing at Pickens’ free clinic.
“I like to think that a lot of our volunteers get to practice medicine like they always wanted to,” she said. “They can practice without restrictions of eight-minute office visits or worrying about this insurance or that. You can see as many or as few patients as you wish.
“The only restrictions are that you have to be budget minded when ordering tests, and you have to be mindful of which drugs are available,” Maddux noted. “There is a great satisfaction in providing care to those who otherwise can’t be treated. There’s a satisfaction that comes with knowing that some of these patients may not be living otherwise.”
Maddux and Dr. Wilber say all practitioners interested in volunteering must, however, have a current license to practice. The good news is doctors who are licensed can use their time volunteering at Good Sam toward keeping up their continuing education requirements, up to half of the 20 hours needed each year.
“Patients here are so grateful and so nice, and you get to know everybody in town,” Dr. Wilber said. “Every time I go into a store or restaurant they all know me and that’s nice.
“But now that I’m not able to work in the clinic I miss it,” he added. “I didn’t realize how much I enjoyed it. We’ve just got to get more licensed doctors, nurse practitioners and PA’s to come work there.”
The Good Samaritan Health and Wellness Center is located at 1400 East Church Street, Jasper, Ga. 30143. If interested in volunteering, contact Carole Maddux at 706-253-4673. You can also visit the Good Samaritan website at www.goodsamhwc.org.