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June 21, 2005   Email to Friend 

Bringing Faith & Medicine To The Black Belt
Alvin Benn

Dr. Leon Davis checks vital signs of patient Mary Rudolph inside the Care-A-Van.
They began arriving early to see their angel in a white smock.

He stepped out of a big, converted recreational vehicle with "Care-A-Van" painted on the sides and wasted little time seeing patients.

The moment it parked near the White Hall Town Hall, those inside perked up. They knew help was only minutes away.

Their angel is Dr. Leon Davis--a physician determined to help those with medical problems and little or no way to pay for treatment.

There are other doctors like Davis around the country, but not many go to the extremes he does.

He takes his practice to the people--those who live in rural areas of Alabama's poorest region. They suffer from high blood pressure, diabetes, osteoporosis, bad teeth, poor eyesight and other ailments.

Most live at or below the poverty level. It's a hand-to-mouth existence for many, and a trip to see a doctor in Montgomery can be expensive. Some have no transportation and have to pay somebody to take them there.

When Davis, 42, came to Alabama a decade ago from Detroit, his thoughts were on building a successful medical practice in Montgomery. He quickly learned that poverty is as pervasive in rural Alabama as it is in urban areas.

The number of poor patients who began coming to see him for help soon grew. They, in turn, told friends who got in line. It became a frustrating situation for Davis.

"I had a growing population of indigent, uninsured patients in my practice," he said. "When you start taking care of people for free, they tend to tell other folks 'if you've got a problem, go see Dr. Davis because he won't send you to collections or hound you for payment.'"

Altruism is fine, but, as Davis soon began to realize, common sense also comes into play.

"You've got to think of business, too," he said, as he took a break from seeing patients on a cloudy, overcast Wednesday morning in Lowndes County. "You've got overhead to pay, and you can't pay it with a population of patients who can't afford to pay you."

Some of his patients had Medicare or Medicaid protection, but many did not. Davis began struggling with what to do about it. "I didn't have the heart to kick them out, but I knew I couldn't afford to keep seeing people who couldn't afford to pay," he said. "That's where the concept of the Community Care Network (CCN) came about."

CCN not only allowed Davis to treat poor people, it also brought him into the public spotlight. Many of Alabama's most important businesses liked what they heard and saw and began to support him financially. One has been Alfa Insurance Co. and the Alabama Farmers Federation which recently donated $25,000 to CCN to help with its health care program.

"We are proud to be able to support the work of Dr. Leon Davis and the Community Care Network," said Alfa President Jerry A. Newby, after spending some time in the "Care-A-Van" mobile medical unit.

Newby noted that the vehicle allows Dr. Davis and his support team to provide medical care "to people who might not otherwise be able to see a doctor.

"Part of the mission of the Alabama Farmers Federation is to improve the quality of life for people in rural Alabama, and the 'Care-A-Van' program is one way that we can fulfill that mission," Newby said.

Davis said the concept of community care was to bring faith and medicine together in a holistic approach to healing.

"In my mind, just taking care of the physical and not addressing spiritual and mental needs would not help in treatment, especially when dealing with an indigent population," Davis said. "They've got so many other things going on, including economics. They don't have money to buy the drugs you write the prescriptions for. They may not have heat in their house or anything else that most of us take for granted."

Davis participated in numerous health fairs during his first few years in treating the poor. He estimates he's screened more than 10,000 patients in the past five years.

Among those he's treated and one of those who waited for him in White Hall was 56-year-old Herman Garrett, who is being treated for blood pressure problems and diabetes.

Garrett sat patiently in a chair next to a wall, a cane by his side. He said he gets about $12,000 a year in disability payments. That's about it. He said he has little left over for medical needs.

"Dr. Davis is so important to us," said Garrett. "Many of us just wouldn't be able to go to Montgomery to see a doctor. We don't have the money."

As his name recognition grew in Montgomery, Davis was approached by Lowndes County activists who asked him to treat the poor in White Hall, Hayneville, Fort Deposit and other areas.

During his medical residency program, Davis spent three months treating the poor in Ethiopia. His desire was to return to Ethiopia, but he quickly learned that he could help people a lot closer to home.

"When I started finding out about the conditions in my backyard in rural Alabama, it fulfilled the need inside me to go to Ethiopia," he said. "We've got third-world conditions right here that need to be addressed."

Lowndes County isn't the only "Third World" section of Alabama. Much of the state's Black Belt region is in the same fix with lots of poor people and few medical facilities to help them.

What Davis wants to do is enlarge his service area to include Dallas, Perry, Wilcox, Pickens, Bullock, Barbour, Marengo, Sumter, Choctaw and other Black Belt counties. He holds health fairs in some of them now, but doesn't have the resources to do in-depth work for the poor.

It costs about $2,000 each time the big van pulls out of Montgomery and heads into those poor counties. With the price of fuel soaring these days, it will get even more expensive.

The CCN budget once was relatively modest. It began at about $50,000 annually. Then, it reached six figures. Now, it's become a multi-million dollar operation.

What Davis envisions is an organization with two or more "Care-A-Vans" and a larger staff to treat the poor in the Black Belt. He knows it'll take a lot of money to do that, but he has the same faith that he imparts to his patients.

Thanks to financial gifts from companies such as Alfa and other leading Alabama entities, along with grants from governmental agencies, Davis and his staff are hopeful the latest financial blueprint will work.

For someone who began on a shoestring budget, Davis is confident the larger figure will be met. If it isn't, it won't stop him from continuing to see the poor in and around Montgomery.

"I can't stop now," he said, as he got up from his chair and headed back to the 'Care-A-Van' to see more patients. "I know how much it means to them. I also know how much it means to me."

For more information about the Care-A-Van, visit www.comcarenetwork.org or call (334) 269-6251.

Former newspaper reporter and freelance writer Alvin Benn lives in Selma.

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