In the Cookeville High School gym earlier this year, a man massages his wife’s legs as she gets several teeth pulled. Tyson Jones says they arrived the night before, to line up in the school parking lot. They slept in their car.
"If you want to call that sleep," he laughs. "I think I got about an hour in, and she got maybe an hour and a half, if that."
Jones’ wife occupies one of the 40 dentist chairs at the Remote Area Medical (RAM) clinic, while dozens of people wait their turn on the gym’s bleachers. It’s easy to imagine the makeshift triage in a disaster or war zone. That day in March, 800 people were seen. On average, RAM volunteers treat 1,000 people a day at the first-come, first-served clinics.
British-born Stan Brock — a former cowboy and action TV actor — founded RAM in Knoxville in the 1980s. He wanted to improve healthcare access in the developing world. But today the nonprofit does little else than hold these massive free clinics across the U.S., even though the majority of medical professionals aren’t allowed to volunteer where they’re not certified.
"If our volunteers had the flexibility to respond and cross state lines," says Brock, "more and more people would join those ranks and be a significant factor in providing care for the underserved."
Dr. Nathaniel Sasson agrees. The New York City dentist has been volunteering for about a decade and says they always turn away patients.
"Sometimes we turn away dozens, sometimes hundreds. People wait until three in the morning to get a number, and we do what we can do," he says. "RAM has great equipment, we just don’t ever have enough doctors."
That’s especially true in those states that don’t allow out-of-state medical volunteers, says Brock, who was instrumental in getting Tennessee to change its laws two decades ago. Since then, only 11 states have followed suit.
Now Brock has a group of congressmen, including Republican John Duncan and Democrat Steve Cohen of Tennessee, trying to make cross-state volunteering the national norm — something even the American Medical Association endorses.
Duncan tells WPLN many legislatures focus on "essential functions" during their part-time sessions and may not even know that their states have such barriers. To help nudge them, the new bipartisan bill he sponsored would give a million-dollar grant to each state that opens its doors to outside medical volunteers, even retroactively.
Stan Brock has been working towards this national push for decades, though he says it’s tragic that there’s such a need for RAM in this country.
"To stand there and watch these people filing in, many of them in wheelchairs and on crutches..." Brock pauses. "This should not be the United States."
If Congressman Duncan’s measure passes, RAM’s numbers would likely grow, in every sense. To date, some 50,000 licensed professionals have provided more than $100 million dollars in free medical, dental and vision care.