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Mercy Heart set to open in January
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While the healthcare debate wages endlessly on in Washington, D.C., Rockdale will soon see the opening of the second free health clinic in the county to stand in the gap for the local uninsured and indigent.

Mercy Heart Clinic, an initiative of First Baptist Church of Conyers, plans to open its doors at 2826 Ga. Highway 20 to patients in late January. The clinic will be staffed entirely by volunteers, and the focus will be on preventative medical care and the treatment of chronic diseases such as diabetes and hypertension and basic dental care, said Greg Smith, president of Mercy Heart’s board.

Mercy Heart hopes to alleviate some of the strain on hospital emergency rooms, which are overflowing with non-emergency patients who are uninsured and have few places to turn given the current economy. Rockdale Medical Center CEO Brian Dearing previously reported at a Chamber of Commerce meeting that about 30 percent of RMC’s emergency room patients were uninsured or indigent.

Initially, the clinic will be open by appointment only on Tuesday and Thursday afternoons and evenings to Rockdale county citizens meeting certain criteria. Expanded hours and services will be dependent on funding through donations and volunteers, such as Dr. Lisa Gillespie, the clinic’s medical director, and Drs. Fred Hedrick and Jeffrey Dodson, who are heading up the dental effort.

Greg Smith, the president of Mercy’s board, said he became involved by "being at the wrong place at the right time." Last year, he was diagnosed with diabetes. Though he had insurance, his pre-existing condition prevented him from securing long-term care and supplemental coverage. This personal experience was a wake-up call of sorts for him highlighting the plight of the uninsured. Smith also brings a unique skill set to his role with Mercy Heart. During his 20-year former career as a Lieutenant Colonel in the Army, he was a military hospital administrator, setting up and moving facilities across the country.

The clinic was originally the vision of Howard Greer, formerly of First Baptist of Conyers. From serving on various community boards, Greer was exposed to the enormous need for a free clinic with so many losing their jobs and health insurance. When Hope Baptist Church disbanded, First Baptist acquired their property on Ga. Highway 20 which included a house. He thought the space would be best used as a charitable clinic.

Readying the house for its new purpose, Homer Lewis Architects donated their services and many plumbers and electricians have followed suit. The United Way has also contributed to the clinic’s start-up.

Darlene Hotchkiss, a school board member and part of the Mercy Heart initiative, points out doctors will not only be donating treatment, but also their employees’ time and supplies.

Another key factor in the project coming together, Hotchkiss said, was the Georgia Volunteer Health Care Program. It provides "sovereign immunity" protection from lawsuits to health care professionals who volunteer their time to care for uninsured individuals. Before this program’s inception, many were hesitant to participate because of the potential liability.

The clinic will begin setting up the office and training volunteers next month. Smith notes that along with medical volunteers the non-profit will also need administrative help. Mercy Heart has a long wish list of needed materials ranging from medical equipment to fax machines.

"The program’s ultimate success will depend on the community’s support," said Greer.

For more information on Mercy Heart or on donating or volunteering, visit