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Occupy Wall Street's Medical Volunteers Fill Health Care Gaps

By Julie Shapiro | October 22, 2011 2:47pm

LOWER MANHATTAN — Blair Washington felt a familiar pain in one of his back molars last Thursday night.

The tooth, on the right side of his mouth, has been bothering him on and off since he got a cavity as an 11-year-old and his family could not afford to have it filled.

Nine years later, Washington still has no medical insurance and the tooth has split in half, slowly rotting away.

Usually, Washington just tries to ignore the pain, but on Thursday night he was finally able to get some relief — thanks to Occupy Wall Street.

Washington, 20, a Brooklyn native who most recently lived in Atlanta, had arrived at Occupy Wall Street three days earlier to protest the economic system that has left him unable to afford college or get a well-paying job.

Now, he headed to the protest's medical tent, where one of the volunteer nurses gave him Tylenol and Q-tips soaked in an herbal oil to place on his tooth.

By the next morning, the pain was gone, at least for the time being.

"It's great," Washington said Friday with an easy grin. "My tooth don't hurt no more."

While Occupy Wall Street's volunteer medical team initially formed to treat pepper-sprayed protesters and other casualties of clashes with the police, the team has expanded with a rotation of doctors and nurses who offer whatever care they can to all patients, many of whom have not seen a doctor in years.

"We see a lot of people who otherwise have not sought out healthcare in five, six years because they have no insurance," said Maria Fehlig, a nurse from Las Vegas who arrived at Occupy Wall Street on Oct. 17 with her union, National Nurses United.

"We're caring for things that [patients] have put off care for: diabetes control, high blood pressure, an ongoing rash…. We've seen such a wide variety."

The medical team now has dozens of volunteers, from certified EMTs who live in Zuccotti Park to doctors who stop by for a few hours a week and are able to write prescriptions that are paid for with donations. If anyone needs to go to the hospital, donations also cover the emergency room bill, volunteers said.

Supplies have poured in from all around the country — everything from antacids to antibacterial hand wipes, plus plenty of gauze, tissues and Ibuprofen — and the two medical tents are so well stocked that when people stop by to ask what they can donate, the medics say they don't have any urgent needs, but could always use more cough drops.

Most of the protesters who visit the medical tent just ask for vitamins and cold medicine, or they present scraped knees and elbows for stitching or bandaging, but some are in more serious distress.

Last week, a 26-year-old Queens woman was dancing in the park's drum circle when she suddenly had an asthma attack and was gasping for breath.

"They brought me over here and gave me an inhaler and two bottles of water," the protester, who declined to give her name, recalled Friday afternoon.

"If I'd gone to the hospital, it would have cost me an arm and a leg," added the woman, who has no health insurance and has not been able to afford to see a doctor or get a prescription inhaler for her chronic asthma.

The woman, who spoke with a hoarse voice from hours of shouting anti-corporate slogans on marches, added that the medical team also treated a friend of hers, a 23-year-old man who is homeless. The man had a seizure a few days ago in Zuccotti Park — he has epilepsy but cannot get medicine to manage it, the woman said.

"Here they care about human beings instead of greed," she said.

Volunteers say that doctors are able to write prescriptions to anyone outside of their offices and that nurses and medics are covered under the Good Samaritan law if a mistake is made. Patients also have the option to go the hospital unless they are unable to make the decision, in which case they would go.

Another patient last week was Christine Pellicci, 44, a Queens resident and bone cancer survivor who has osteoporosis and osteoarthritis, conditions that make it difficult for her to work and have not been helped by sleeping on cold concrete in Zuccotti Park.

Pellicci visited the medical tent last Thursday when her hands got so stiff that she was unable to wiggle her fingers or make a fist.

An acupuncturist placed needles in her hands, neck, shoulders and arms, wrapped her in blankets and had her lie still for 40 minutes, then gave her winter gloves and a warmer jacket.

"Now I can move my hands — I can move my neck," Pellicci said a few hours later, sitting amid layered tarps and sleeping bags where she has been camping.

Pellicci said she has Medicaid but avoids going to doctors and had never tried acupuncture.

"If it wasn't for [Occupy Wall Street] I wouldn't be able to afford it," Pellicci said.

Looking ahead, Occupy Wall Street's medical volunteers are bracing for the cold weather and all the accompanying illnesses for those who continue to sleep outside.

Some protesters have already been treated for the early stages of hypothermia, especially on nights when a frigid rain has pounded the encampment, volunteers said. The medical team is arranging for flu shots and is encouraging everyone to pick up vitamins, eat healthy foods and get as much rest as possible.

Billie Greenfield, 24, an Upper West Side resident who works in retail and has been sleeping down at Occupy Wall Street, said she is doing her best to stay healthy, but she's glad to know help is there if she needs it.

"We should be taking care of each other, as opposed to making money off of each other," Greenfield said, referring to traditional health insurance models.

"This is what it's all about — let's create a community where we all support and love and care for each other."