UNTIL HER COUSIN told her about North by Northeast last year, Parks would simply wait until she felt light-headed, dizzy, with tightness in her chest—symptoms of her skyrocketing blood pressure—then she would check herself into the emergency room. In the year since she started visiting the clinic, however, she hasn’t made a single trip to the ER.

“I get more from the doctors at the clinic than I did from the docs I had when I had insurance,” Parks says, eyes crinkling at the corners as she smiles while waiting to see one of the clinic’s doctors. “They really talk to me and explain things so I can understand them. It feels good knowing what’s going on with my body, empowering.”

Parks’s story, and the hundreds like it, frustrate Ginsberg, in large part because the chronic conditions most of the clinic’s patients come in for—high blood-pressure, diabetes and asthma—are so easy and inexpensive to treat. With preventive medicine, patients like Parks should never reach the life-threatening stage that requires a visit to the hospital. Parks receives her medication free from the clinic, but if she had to pay for it, a month’s supply of the generic blood pressure medication would cost only $6; the doctor visit required to get that prescription, however, costs about $125. A trip to the ER can cost upward of $300.

Because the staff of North by Northeast know they can’t help everyone, the clinic limits its mission to helping a specific neighborhood, defined by the five ZIP codes that cover North and inner Northeast Portland. Still, patients come from as far away as Scappoose looking for help. “We’ll never tell people, ‘You don’t belong here,’” says Ginsberg. While patients from within the service area get priority on Thursday nights, if the doctors have time, they’ll see others or help them find a clinic closer to home.

The Portland metro region currently has eight free or reduced-cost clinics and five that operate on a sliding scale. For example, Southwest Community Health Center, in the Multnomah neighborhood, offers care for free or a small donation, as does Wallace Medical Concern in Gresham. Others, like downtown’s Outside In Medical Clinic, offer treatment on a sliding scale. When North by Northeast patients have a condition that requires treatment by a specialist, like someone with a potentially cancerous skin lesion who needs to see a dermatologist, volunteer social workers tap into Project Access Multnomah County, an effort supported by the Coalition of Community Health Clinics to connect patients to doctors who have agreed to donate their time and skills for free. Most of the patients North by Northeast has treated to date have used—or tried to use—at least one other low-cost clinic.

‘My heart is broken because of the stories we hear.’

“When people need help, they can be incredibly determined about getting it,” says Ginsberg.

And when they find it, they are incredibly grateful: When the center’s volunteer coordinator, Chloe Busch, locked her keys in her car, a patient who’d stopped by to pick up a prescription drove her home to get a spare key and then drove her back to the clinic. “It was a small thing for him, but he was so excited to be able to do something,” says Ginsberg.

It’s a sentiment the doctor can relate to. In the face of our country’s massive health care dilemma, it’s easy for the very people who have sworn an oath to help to feel most helpless. But by focusing on one neighborhood and one clinic, Ginsberg and Overstreet-Smith know they are taking a step forward. Ginsberg mentions a Jewish teaching that instructs, “Although you do not have to finish the task, neither are you free to desist from it.” And the staff of the North by Northeast clinic are prepared for a very long walk.

WHAT THEY NEED: Stamps, office supplies and cash donations; volunteer nurse practitioners.
TO GIVE: www.nxneclinic.org; 503-287-4932