New Free Clinic director steps in, up during crisis

In the month Tammy LaGraffe has been the director, the coronavirus pandemic has changed the way the Free Clinic has operated, but the mission is still to serve those lacking insurance and other access to health care.

It’s been an interesting first month on the job for the new director of the Free Clinic of Culpeper.

In the month Tammy LaGraffe has been the director, the coronavirus pandemic has changed the way the Free Clinic has operated, but the mission is still to serve those lacking insurance and other access to health care.

“The Health Department was aware of [the coronavirus] from when it started back in November/December in China. We kind of had been talking about it but it wasn’t hugely on our radar at that point. There might have been a couple cases out West,” LaGraffe said.

“Normally what I would do is make sure the operations of the clinic are going OK and support the staff that do the clinical work here. We have a physician’s assistant and a nurse and a front-desk support person and then a lot of wonderful volunteers. The volunteers are doctors, nurses, clerical people, people who help out with outreach, you name it,” she said, adding: “Normally, I would coordinate volunteers, make sure that the clinical staff have what they need, make sure we’re following all of the rules and regulations for people who are deemed eligible … make sure that we’re getting funding and donations, reporting, reporting stats, all of that kind of stuff.”

But that’s all changed since COVID-19 has taken ahold across the world, nation and now the region.

“Right now it’s about making sure that our staff and patients are safe, basically. Then making sure that we can still be here for our patients and they’re healthy and they’re being seen when they need something,” LaGraffe said. “We’re having them stay away and we’re calling them, and having their appointment over the phone or via some video and trying to keep the traffic down here. If anyone does have any issues, be it symptoms of respiratory illness or anything else, that they call us before they come so that we can assess them. The idea is that the longer we can go, the more the burden on the hospital is decreased.

“Our hope is that we are decreasing the burden on the hospital and not putting our patients in a position where they have to go to the hospital when they are uninsured. We’re going to stay going as long as we can,” she said. “This is their safety net, so we want to make sure we’re here for them.”

The Free Clinic of Culpeper serves anyone without insurance who qualifies for aid based on state guidelines. That includes anyone from part-time workers to the chronically unemployed. 

Part of the clinic’s goal is to get people signed up for Medicaid, so they can see other physicians in the community as well.

With the economic downtown expected in the wake of the pandemic, LaGraffe suspects more people will need the clinic’s help.

“What we are suspecting with all of this is that some people will lose their jobs and their insurance, and we want to be there for him,” she said.

“Here, people have been pretty calm. Obviously our staff is very calm, we are staying right on top of every piece of information that comes out. We are staying right in contact with the Health Department, we are staying right in contact with the hospital,” LaGraffe said. “We’re feeling as much as anyone can right now that we have control. Our patients aren’t really talking about it too much. We really haven’t had a lot of people come in with symptoms or concerns. I don’t know if that is going to change, but at this point … knock on wood … this area of the town is calm.”

“We’re staying in touch with our volunteers and letting them know, because we ask them to stop coming about a week ago because we didn’t want to expose anybody extra. It’s hard,” she said. “We do rely quite a bit on our volunteers. We have a large pool of volunteers and they do so much for us, but it was hard to lose them.”

Originally from upstate New York, LaGraffe has been a nurse for 35 years. “I worked everywhere from labor and delivery to wellness to psychiatry for quite a while. Then I worked with individuals with developmental disabilities,” LaGraffe said.

LaGraffe was the nursing supervisor at the Fauquier Health Department for the past two years, but she’s been a Culpeper resident all that time.

“As it happened, I wasn’t looking for a job,” LaGraffe said. “As it happened, I wasn’t looking for a job. But this opportunity came along and this job was so similar to jobs I have done in the past that I decided I would look into it and see if it was something that would be a good fit, and it really is similar … to jobs I really enjoyed doing.”

New jobs have included being a school nurse in southern New York and running a healthcare quality unit in Pennsylvania, offering education and support.

“I’m very, very happy to be here, though. Since we’ve come, Culpeper has been so welcoming, such a nice place to live,” LaGraffe said. “It’s just so nice to be working right here and feel like you’re giving back something to the community.”

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