BENNINGTON — Thank you, Alex Bettez.
The senior at Williams College in nearby Williamstown, Mass., devoted her summer to putting in minimum-wage hours at the Bennington Free Clinic on Depot Street, helping the uninsured access health care for themselves and their families.
“I would have done it for free,” Bettez said of her internship at the clinic. She said the individual stories the patients brought into the exam rooms were moving, adding that the one thing they all shared was “how kind and grateful they were.”
Bettez, captain of Williams College women’s cross-country team, is majoring in English and Chemistry, with a concentration in Public Health. She was familiar with the Bennington area from running on trails nearby.
“Southern Vermont is a beautiful area,” she said during a recent conversation at the clinic. “It has been so impactful to be involved in the community here and form a connection.”
Bettez had special training that expanded her role at the clinic. She was certified at age 16 as an emergency medical tech in high school and served as crew chief of her high school cadet squad.
“I always had the idea of my career being in health care,” she said.
That certification enabled her to work directly with patients at the Bennington clinic — something not permitted for most students who lack that training — performing basic medical procedures (she took my blood pressure), taking patients’ medical histories and more.
Staff at the clinic were entirely comfortable working with Bettez as a student intern, said her supervisor at the clinic, Eileen Rice.
“The doctors were very willing to bring her into the room,” she said. And Bettez had the added benefit of learning directly from their knowledge.
The internship was coordinated through the College Student Healthcare Internship Program at AHEC. The Southern Vermont Area Health Education Center in Springfield is one of two independent not-for-profit regional AHEC centers in Vermont. The AHEC Network, with state, federal and community support, strengthens the primary care workforce by — among other things — providing health career exploration programs for students, and providing the experiences to encourage future practice in Vermont.
Bettez was one of about 100 students who applied for one of AHEC’s internships. And she was lucky. She spent the prior academic year at Oxford University in England, which ended later than most American colleges — meaning she wasn’t able to start an internship as quickly as other applicants. But the Free Clinic internship lined up with that later start, and Bettez secured the spot.
“Alex also had the benefit of having some certification, EMT, which allowed her to engage with the patients,” said Susan White, Southern Vermont Area Health Education Center’s director of Health Career Preparedness and Practitioner Support.
Many of the internships are conducted remotely. White said Bettez “was lucky to do an in-person one.”
For her part, Bettez plans to stay in the health care arena in some form — working on policy, perhaps going into health care law, or going to medical school. At the moment, health care policy — structuring a system that is more equitable — seems like the strongest draw. She plans on going to graduate school after graduating from Williams, she said.
She hopes to return to help out at the clinic during her “work study term” in January.
“It feels very valuable,” Bettez said.
The Free Clinic, conveniently next to the local food pantry, is open by appointment during certain Monday hours, or for walk-ins on Thursdays from 6 to 9 p.m. The clinic offers wellness education, treatment of health issues like diabetes and high blood pressure, physical exams, help with medications and more. Visit gbicsbennington.org/programs/bennington-free-clinic for information.
The clinic staff see about 30 people a month, a number that is expected to increase as COVID restrictions are eased. The $168,000 annual budget comes from grants, donations and other sources. (To donate, visit gbicsbennington.org/get-involved/donate.)
As I left the clinic, I was asked to put out a call for nurses to volunteer at the clinic. The need is great, in part because while Obamacare has expanded coverage, there are still so many folks without health insurance. And the shortage of primary care providers in the region has exacerbated the ability of the uninsured to find care. (To volunteer, visit gbicsbennington.org/get-involved/volunteer.)
“Our care is always free,” Rice said.