Saying goodbye to a dear friend
MERCI Clinic has always been a volunteer driven organization, which includes volunteer physicians. MERCI had and still has an excellent group of doctors offering their time and talents, but the process sometimes left the clinic without the needed number of providers. In 2010, Nancy Alexander, then executive director of MERCI Clinic, wrote and was granted funding from the North Carolina Office of Rural Health to offer part time contract services to a primary care provider, which was offered to and accepted by Dr. Mark Heffington. Nancy’s forward thinking changed the clinic process overnight, assuring that a primary care provider was available from 8 a.m. – 5 p.m every Tuesday and Thursday.
On March 9, 2010, when the clinic doors opened at 8 a.m. for the first time, primary care services were offered through appointments, even for the volunteer physicians who would continue to supplement services as their own schedules would allow. Gone were the days of patients lining up outside the clinic’s front door at 4 a.m., each hoping that he/she would be able to be seen by a physician when the doors opened at 2 p.m. Gone also was the heart wrenching knowledge by the clinic staff and volunteers that those standing in the lines were exposed to hot and humid searing sun on summer days, or freezing cold winds and rains of the winter. Gone were the problems of established patients not being able to access time with a physician because they were not able to secure one of the sacred 20 spots in the first come, first served line; the result being their inability to have their life sustaining medications reviewed and refilled.
Dr. Heffington moved here from the mountains of North Carolina where he began his career of providing services to those without access to medical care. He was instrumental in founding similar clinics in Cashiers and Highlands and remained on their boards for a number of years. His fluency in Spanish helped him win a grant to provide services to migrant workers, a project called Vecinos Farmworker Health Program. Dr. Heffington began this project in the mountains, traveling from one farm to another. With a medically equipped van, he provided health services to the migrant population who did not have access to care. He continued this program when he relocated to Eastern North Carolina, providing medical care to the migrant population of this area, until 2011 when the funding ran out. Dr. Heffington began as a volunteer primary care provider at MERCI in 2009, as well as Hope Clinic in Bayboro and Broad Street Clinic in Morehead City. These are medical clinics in the area that provide services to the uninsured. Even when contracted with MERCI Clinic, Dr. Heffington continued volunteering at the two other clinics several evenings a month (after working an 8-9 hours day at MERCI).
Dr. Heffington’s passion for and understanding of this population, his fluency in Spanish, his expertise in primary care and his unflappable manner earned him the Don Lucey Award, presented by the North Carolina Association of Free and Charitable Clinics in 2014. He was also a nominee and high contender for the North Carolina Medical Society’s Doctor of the Year award in 2015. Though he did not win that award, he will always be THE Doctor of 2015 at MERCI Clinic.
This past week found us having to say a tearful goodbye to Dr. Heffington, a much loved provider and dear friend to all at the clinic as he relocated to another part of the state. Patients, staff and volunteers alike will miss his smile and his sense of humor. The reality of his departure was apparent on Tuesday morning when the familiar hand wave and “good morning, everyone” was missing. Thank you, Dr. Heffington, for being such a positive and understanding presence at MERCI Clinic.