FAITH AND HEALING
Patients call Karen Willenbring ’89 “Sister Karen,” not “Doctor Karen,” but she is both. She graduated from medical school at Penn State in May 1998 and a week later took her final vows.
After completing her residency, Sister Karen founded the Susquehanna Rural Free Clinic in Frenchville, Pennsylvania, a coal-mining community in Appalachia. Here, she and her team provide free healthcare to those without insurance or who otherwise cannot afford to see a doctor.
“I went to medical school with the intention of starting a free medical clinic,” she said. “I got the idea from working in people’s homes and seeing their unmet needs. Then my residency gave me a flavor of the types of special needs in poor rural communities.”
By 2001, her clinic was becoming a reality. Her first patient walked in the door on Jan. 9, 2002. In 2009, a dental clinic was added. Thousands of area residents are served each year.
I’M HAPPY TO BE ABLE TO BLEND THE HEALING ART OF MEDICINE WITH THE SPIRITUAL DIMENSION OF BEING A SISTER.
The only paid staff members are three part-timers — a nurse, a medical office specialist and a custodian. Everybody else is a volunteer, including Sister Karen, who moonlights as a physician in a neighboring community to pay the mortgages she took out to finance construction of the original clinic and the addition for the dental clinic.
She is astounded by the community’s commitment to the clinic — everybody from doctors, dentists and optometrists who see patients to trades and labor workers who helped to construct the facilities.
Patients get more than just medical care.
“I’m happy to be able to blend the healing art of medicine with the spiritual dimension of being a sister,” she said. “When people first come in, I see fear, sadness and often helplessness. Because they haven’t had insurance, they have neglected their health and aren’t sure what a ‘free’ health care clinic is all about. After we work with them, I see renewed health — and hope.
“I want to be able to connect with people on a deeper level,” Sister Karen explains. “I have the freedom to interact with them on a spiritual level if that’s where their interest lies. They’ll bring stuff up, and we have the time to talk through things. Patients then feel as though they’re getting more than just medicine being handed out to them.