David Jones sits slumped over his walker in a waiting room chair at a makeshift health clinic in Anchorage’s Sullivan Arena. He’s wearing a face mask, faded jeans and rubbing his knee like a baker kneading dough. He wears ivory and black rosary beads around his neck, anchored by an ornate carved wooden crucifix. He found the beads in a pair of pants he bought at a thrift store and took it as a sign. He wears them all of the time now, a talisman that provides him comfort.
“My legs are swollen,” he said. “It hurts to walk, it hurts to lay down, it hurts all the time. It’s one thing after another.”
Jones is one of a steady stream of patients. The people who come here have not had easy lives. Some struggle with mental health challenges, or battle drug and alcohol addiction. Others have no place to live. Living on the streets is hard on their bodies, and their minds. Each has their own story, and their own struggle, but for these few minutes, the caregivers at the Sullivan Arena Clinic help alleviate some of their pain.
In 2020, Providence Health & Services Alaska diverted staff, resources and equipment to this clinic to help ensure these vulnerable Anchorage residents receive the health care they need – when they need it. The clinic is also located where they need it, just steps away from the mass emergency shelter set up inside the Sullivan Arena during this past year’s COVID-19 pandemic. The box office – where fans once came to buy tickets to a concert or sporting event – is the arena space that has been converted into a clinic.
There are three agencies/organizations that are supporting this clinic —Anchorage Neighborhood Health Center, Southcentral Foundation and Providence. And within Providence, the Alaska Family Medical Center and Residency, and Providence Behavioral Health.
On this day, it is the staff from Providence’s Alaska Family Medical Center and Residency on duty. At the admission desk, which consists of a foldout table and some metal chairs, administrative manager Sarajean Fue checks Jones in, then takes him to one of two “exam rooms,” separated by brown and green tarps strapped along the ceiling. It’s a rudimentary but effective setup, providing privacy for up to two patients at a time.
Dr. Justin Carricaburu is the doctor in charge. As a faculty doctor overseeing the care being administered by the residents and medical students on site, it is his job to make sure his charges are doing the job right.
Jones’ knees are aching, likely aggravated by the low cots at the temporary shelter, he tells Fue. Medical student Carson Twiss continued the examination, with Carricaburu observing alongside him.
“These populations are the highest users of the ER [emergency department],” Carricaburu said. “Having them in this setting, right at the shelter, we can minimize the risk of spreading COVID and give them care without them having to leave. It’s a holistic perspective that lets them heal better.”
According to Nathan Johnson, Providence’s regional director of Community Health Investment, the clinic also provides umbrella services, which means patients can get everything from on-site prescription refills, to mental health treatment, to referrals if needed.
“Providing comprehensive services here is an example of Providence’s desire to treat the whole person – to help transform hurt into hope,” he said, which is fitting since that’s what Providence is about. Its mission, to steadfastly serve all, especially those who are poor and vulnerable, is exemplified by the success story of a clinic arisen from the necessity of a pandemic.