Dr. Jubril Oyeyemi vividly remembers the day his 5-year-old neighbor Esther fell ill. She had a gradually increasing fever – something that could have easily been treated with Tylenol, but in the part of Nigeria where they lived there wasn’t access to a nearby clinic or hospital to treat her. The next morning, Oyeyemi was informed Esther had passed during the night.
“That struck a chord enough where I knew I wanted to pursue medicine,” Oyeyemi said.
Since Esther’s passing, providing access to health care has become the 33-year-old Cherry Hill resident’s mission. Two years ago, he opened the Cherry Hill Free Clinic, which provides free care for people who are uninsured or who can’t afford their co-pays, and the clinic has since served more than 760 people.
At only 16 yearsold, Oyeyemi graduated from high school in Nigeria and decided to come to the United States to study medicine. He graduated summa cum laude from Lincoln University of Pennsylvania and earned his medical degree from Penn State College of Medicine.
Upon finishing his residency requirements, he joined Virtua Health as a hospitalist working with patients day-to-day in the emergency room. It was an encounter with a woman at Virtua Marlton that stirred the same feelings he had after Esther’s passing.
A 52-year-old school teacher was admitted to the ER with chest pains, and the doctors suspected she was having a heart attack. While the doctors were gathering her history, Oyeyemi learned that the woman had suffered a heart attack once before. She was not currently taking any medications because she couldn’t afford to pay for her follow-up visits, and without a follow-up, she couldn’t get a refill on her prescription.
“That feeling [hit] me again – that feeling of this is just not right,” Oyeyemi said.
He’d seen cases like this at least three or four times a week in the hospital, and he thought there had to be a way to refill medications for people who had fallen through the cracks of the health-care system. So, he began compiling a list of what he’d need to make that happen. He’d need space, time, volunteers, malpractice insurance. As the list grew longer, it seemed like an almost insurmountable undertaking, but he was undeterred.
Once he got the ball rolling, Oyeyemi received an outpouring of support. His local Muslim community, notably the Gracious Center of Learning & Enrichment activities, rallied behind him by providing funding for the space and championing the cause as a way to serve the community. Walgreens provided immunizations. CVS provided supplies, and Lourdes donated exam tables. In addition to donating computers and furniture, Virtua has subsidized lab and radiology services. The clinic is completely funded by donations from both organizations and local individuals.
The Cherry Hill Free Clinic opened two years ago, and since then, physicians from nearly every local health system have treated patients in more than 1,500 encounters. The clinic is open on weekends, and the visits are completely free to patients.
Oyeyemi said the bulk of what they see are conditions that people would typically go to their primary care physician for such as high cholesterol, diabetes, COPD, asthma and other chronic diseases. He said a recurring thread among the patients they see is that they’re hard-working people who are going through a rough time. He said they’re people who can’t get to a doctors office on weekdays, can’t afford the cost of a visit or have other barriers to care, and their goal is to shatter these barriers.
For one of Oyeyemi’s patients, Earl McPhearson, Jr., the clinic quite literally saved his life. McPhearson suffers from hypertension. The Lawnside resident works two jobs – one of which is as a dental assistant, but his work offers him just under the number of hours he needs to qualify for health insurance. As a result, McPhearson was using his mother’s hypertension medication, but given their dosages didn’t align, he found himself in the emergency room one day with skyrocketing blood pressure.
He left a week later with a 30-day supply of pills, but when those ran out and he couldn’t afford to see a doctor to get them refilled, he went back to taking his mother’s medication. He was waking up in the night with sweats, his energy was dwindling and he was considering returning to the ER just to get his next refill when he his girlfriend found out about the Cherry Hill Free Clinic.
McPhearson paid his first visit two months ago. He left with a 90-day supply of medication that he said he could afford to fill in full because he didn’t have to pay for the examination. He said his energy level has returned, and he’s even taken on another job as a bartender in his spare time.
“This place saved my life,” McPhearson said. “I have a place I can come to now where I can take care of myself.”
Oyeyemi said McPhearson’s story is a common one. There are many patients who go to the ER to have their medications refilled, and part of their goal is to help preserve the emergency room for critical care. He said patients often come in when they’re going through a rough time, and if their insurance status should change, then they’ll go to a primary care office. But in the meantime, they want to lend a hand for those in difficult situations and to provide a dignified experience while doing so.
Because there is a heightened awareness about cost, each room is equipped with a binder that lists all of the lowest cost medications. Physicians will also use an app to scan all of the local pharmacies to see where certain medications are cheapest for their patients. For those who can’t afford to refill their medication, the clinic has recently partnered with CVS Pharmacy. Patients can present a voucher to CVS to have their prescriptions refilled, and CVS will, in turn, bill the Cherry Hill Free Clinic at subsidized cost.
And it’s not just the patients whose lives have been changed by the clinic.
“For me it was just a way of falling back in love with medicine, really,” Oyeyemi said. “Any doctor, any clinician, any nurse really will tell you it goes back to helping people. This project just regrounds me in that arena.”
He looks looks forward to coming to the clinic – so much so that he’s come almost every weekend for the last two years. He said there’s a palpable, positive energy that radiates among the volunteers a Saturday or Sunday morning.
Looking ahead, the plan is to eventually have the clinic open seven days a week. They’re also giving careful consideration to ways to provide their patients with transportation to and from the clinic and pharmacy.
The goal is to break down as many barriers to access as possible because at the end of the day it could be anyone – a brother, sister, friend or neighbor – going through a difficult time, and when they fall, they want to be there to pick them back up. For Oyeyemi, the patients are a constant reminder of what he learned the day Esther passed.
“It just goes back to the basics of helping your next-door-neighbor,” Oyeyemi said.
The Cherry Hill Free Clinic operate completely on donations. The clinic is located at 5 Esterbrook Lane in Cherry Hill and is appointment only. To learn more, to book an appointment or to donate, visit www.cherryhillfreeclinic.org.