By Chandra Broadwater, St. Petersburg Times Staff Writer
In print: Wednesday, June 11, 2008
With some help from deliverer Don Lambert, the 45-year-old internist unloaded the table from the back of Lambert's pickup as the clouds darkened overhead. Wheeling it on a dolly, they maneuvered the large brown rectangle down a long, narrow hall and into one of the examination rooms at the soon-to-open Crescent Community Clinic of Hernando County.
On the way in, they passed a stack of gray waiting-room chairs and diagrams of the human body — detailed sketches of the nervous system and the brain — yet to be hung on the freshly painted peach-colored walls.
"This is our dream coming true," Zarad said, wiping sweat from his brow after angling the table into the room. "This is how we are going to give back to our community."
In the coming weeks, Zarad and nearly 40 other Muslim doctors in Hernando County will begin working on Saturdays in their new space in the Brook Plaza at Broad Street and Ponce de Leon Boulevard, just outside downtown Brooksville. Their goal is to provide free care to the growing number of underserved and uninsured people in Hernando County.
Today, the doctors and clinic spokesman Ahmed Bedier are expected to announce the opening of the clinic, financed solely by physicians from Hernando's Muslim community.
The local physicians have worked for the past year figuring out how to make their vision happen here in Hernando. Modeled after the Red Crescent Clinic in Tampa, and a similar site in central Los Angeles, it is one of a handful of such facilities in the state and country.
With Zarad and a handful of other doctors at the lead, they're ready to give back the way that their religion asks them — even if it's in a county where religious tensions still run high.
"Charity and doing good make up the Third Pillar of Islam," Zarad said. "And after talking about this for so long, we decided to make it really happen. I'm losing sleep just thinking of the benefits this will bring for the community."
Though far from where most of them have their practices in Spring Hill, the doctors liked the 1,400-square-foot Brook Plaza site, which used to be a doctor's office.
The new clinic is next to a Save-A-Lot grocery store and across from the Brooksville Public Assistance service center. There are also businesses where many people go to find day-labor jobs and several homeless camps in the nearby woods.
The location also makes it easy for people to walk to if they don't have transportation, Zarad said. And with hours on Saturdays, which they hope to expand to several days in the future, those who can't afford to miss work still will be able to see a doctor. So far, the only requirement to make an appointment is that a patient cannot have insurance.
While a schedule has yet to be worked out, the doctors expect to have two or three general physicians staffing the office while specialists, including cardiologists and neurologists, will rotate through the clinic on various days.
Zarad said the move by retailers such as Wal-Mart and Publix to provide cheap prescription drugs solved one problem for those who can't afford proper health care. Now he and his fellow doctors can help to solve another by giving them access to health care and prescriptions for the drugs they need.
"We've all seen the number of indigent patients increase," he said. "And that was a big reason for us to finally get this open."
It's not uncommon for many of those who can't afford health care or insurance to end up in emergency rooms for primary care, and often when their health problems have become worse. According to the 2006 Health Needs Assessment, about 18 percent of Hernando residents do not have medical insurance.
Three years ago, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services awarded the county a $1.95-million grant to expand clinic services when the county's Health Department was identified as catering to medically underserved areas.
Those regions include Brooksville and the northwestern parts of the county. They were designated underserved because of a shortage of primary physicians, higher incidences of chronic illnesses, such as heart disease and diabetes, and a high percentage of families living below 200 percent of the poverty level, which at the time was $38,700 for a family of four.
About 23 percent of residents in these areas of the county also had no health insurance.
The Crescent Community Clinic will also add a layer to similar services provided by Nature Coast Project Access, a county-funded program that refers uninsured patients through the Health Department to a network of volunteer doctors, said Jean Rags, county director of Health and Human Services.
"The new clinic will be a great contribution to the community, and a welcomed resource to our many residents in need," Rags said.
Those behind the clinic ultimately hope it will work as a catalyst for others to donate their time and talents to such needs in the community.
"For example, many of the same people who can't afford medical care can't go to the dentist," said Bedier, the clinic spokesman. "We hope this sets an example for others to follow, and maybe a way to compete in doing good."
Bedier, no stranger to Hernando as the former executive director of the Tampa chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, added that the physicians aren't worried about some who might not support the Muslim doctors in the county.
In 2006, CAIR spearheaded efforts to get prominent politicians, including then-Gov. Jeb Bush, to denounce the comments of a Hernando County commissioner's wife, who wrote a letter calling Islam a "hateful, frightening religion."
The letter spurred weeks of alternating condemnation and kudos throughout the state.
"People won't be coming to the clinic to attend religious services," Bedier said. "They're going to come because they need health care. While the critics and naysayers will always be there, the majority of people in Hernando County are very loving.
"If there's a need so important like health care, then I think people will put aside their differences and work together."
Chandra Broadwater can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, or (352) 848-1432.