Now we’re going back to the beginning of the MRI story. Spoiler alert, I suppose… You know how it turns out.

A couple of weeks ago, I’d priced MRIs. They’re a couple thousand dollars. X-rays are less expensive, but I don’t feel like that is something I need, and it’s still not cheap.

I had posted the question to my Facebook friends about affordable imagining, and a friend mentioned Volunteer Healthcare Clinic. I looked it up and found that they see patients on Tuesday and Thursday nights, and that their requirements are that you have no form of healthcare whatsoever, make 200% the federal poverty guidelines or below, present a photo ID, and have proof of county residence.


From what I read, the doors opened at 5 and they started seeing patients at six, after which time no new patients were admitted. I left my sister’s at around 5 and see, with hindsight, that showing up at 5 would be a good idea if you were actually sick. I look pretty healthy, so probably would have been shoved to the back in triage, anyway.

I got to the facility at 5:15ish and had to park two blocks away. When I walked in, a gentleman was conducting an orientation of sorts. He directed me to a place where I could grab a ticket, then he continued explaining, in both English and Spanish, that all services were being provided by volunteers: the administrators, pharmacy, doctors, intake, nurses, etc. They would treat the client with respect and expected the same in return. He talked through what would happen and what wouldn’t happen there at the clinic.

He mentioned, for instance, that they do not have care for expectant mothers. They had a dermatologist there for that night. He said that they had vouchers for an eye exam and free glasses, but specified that you had to ask for the voucher when you were being checked in. Then he asked if anyone there had used an eyewear voucher before, and three people had. He asked them to hold up their glasses. He asked them, “Did you have to pay for them?” Everyone indicated no, they were complementary. “So you got them for free? It worked?” They all confirmed it. You could tell that some people might be nervous about whether they’d be baited-and-switched. That others had already blazed this trail and not been “taken” seemed to soothe them. The same spiel happened when they talked about orders for x-rays and flu shots.

A bit before six, we all lined up outside, in order of our ticket numbers, to be checked in. A cold front had blown in, and we all stood shivering in the beautiful, flaming Austin sunset, as rain begin to pelt us. We were allowed to queue up near the building to avoid getting wet, but the whole check-in took fewer than fifteen minutes.

A gentleman asked to see my photo ID, and asked why I was there. When I explained, he seemed a little put out. “Are you experiencing pain NOW?” he asked. It was with extreme self-restraint that I answered calmly, “All of the time. Yes.”

I was given a number and went back in the big room to sit down… or, in my case, stand up.

The clinic asks for a donation of $5, but most of the people I saw were giving $10-20.

Those with children were allowed to go first, regardless of when they arrived. One boy apparently had whooping cough (something I’m sure I shouldn’t have heard, but which I will explain later), and it was a school night, after all.

Everyone was called back to get paperwork handled in order of our numbers. My number had been assigned as 27/adult (this was after 11 or so kids), so after an hour, when we were only on 9/adult, I knew I’d be there a while.

As I watched, though, I noticed that people were being processed and seen and sent to the lab and pharmacy as they could. Finally, after over an hour, I went to the back to start my paperwork. I was asked questions about my income, and where I would have gone for heath care if the clinic hadn’t been available.

When that was finished, I was sent back out to wait for the next step.

At just before 8:00 PM, or more than two and a half hours after I’d gotten there, I was sent in to be weighed (I closed my eyes and asked her not to say it out loud) and measured… and decided to ignore that I’ve apparently shrunk one inch since I was measured for my high school senior cap and gown.

Then I was sent back out to wait for triage.

I went back to be interviewed by a nursing student from UT. She was very attentive and pleasant, nearly three hours in, even though I did chuckle when she asked me how to spell “sciatica.”

She took my temperature (which was “normal,” which is high for me) and my blood pressure (which was “low,” which is normal for me), then, you guessed it: sent me back out to wait.

There was a line of five seats along a narrow hall in the back of the building, and I’d learned that this was the waiting area for seeing the doctor.

Gradually, everyone else was called back, even people who’d been assigned numbers behind me. I got it by then: I had no overt illness, and could wait. No problem. I had taken, “The Real History of Chocolate” to read (again) and was engaged in any number of fascinating text conversations to pass the time.

I watched clients hanging out at the lab in back of the room. When the lab techs weren’t working, they would talk with the patients. When the admin who was taking “donations” was not busy, she just sat and talked with whomever might come to share a bench with her.

The idea of mutual respect in my head from the orientation leader’s explanation, I saw it. I especially saw it when, shortly after 9:00 PM, I was finally called back to the “the doctor will see you now… almost” chair line.

While I waited, a group (made up largely of UT med students) of volunteers was standing around the corner chatting. That’s when I heard about the sick kid’s diagnosis. They were also talking about putting together a 20,000-piece puzzle. They were enjoying each other, and had nothing else to do for the night. They were basically waiting for me to leave. And they sounded a lot less tired than I was, making plans to go out afterward.

Dr. Gonzales called me into his office, the last patient of the evening. What I’m about to tell you might cause you a great deal of shock, but it’s the honest truth: This man, this doctor, this gentleman who could have been at home but had chosen to donate his time and experience to help me and people like me… He LISTENED to me. He asked what was wrong, and before he tried to tell me what he thought, he LISTENED to the words coming out of my mouth. He was positive about my chiropractor. He agreed with everything she’d told me, and was surprised himself that the month of adjustments hadn’t helped yet.

He felt my back and said it did seem uneven (not surprising since he had me bend over and I can only do that if I bend my left knee significantly), but that he didn’t feel anything that concerned him. He thinks the wonky sacrum is the most likely reason my nerves are shot and I’m in so much pain. He agreed that a bulged disc might be the cause, also, but that the odd thing there is that typically, if that happens, it hurts for six weeks or so and then scars over and the pain subsides. He said that sometimes it will last as long as eight weeks, which is around how long I’ve been in this extremely severe pain.

The doctor said he was not at all concerned that I might have a tumor or anything more serious, but that, to rule it out, he’d be glad to order blood work (to check for infections and cell count) and an MRI.

I almost cried.

The nurse who’d triaged me had suggested an x-ray, and I didn’t want to be a choosy beggar, so I wasn’t going to say anything if that’s how the visit went.

But do you know what?

The doctor listened to me. I think he could tell what I wanted and he met that need. I was extremely grateful.

After he sent me off, I went into the lab to have blood drawn. Another volunteer was turning off the lights in the main room. I literally closed the place down.

I left at a bit before 10:00, thanking everyone who was still hanging out.

Fortunately, the rain had quickly visited and moved on, because that two blocks was much more nicely traversed in the cool, still evening than it would have been in a cold soaking-to-the-bone rain.

As I processed this visit on my drive, I realized that I’d basically been paid (or granted?) $500 an hour to sit in that clinic. No imaging centers use a sliding scale. Having now gone through the MRI, I can more appreciate why it’s so expensive, and would not want to save money by finding a cut-rate operation.

Another friend here in town said that this is one thing he loves about Austin: That there are people here who have the means to make a difference, and they do. They’re not just bleeding-hearts, they are actual do-gooders.

Adding up all of the donations from that night doesn’t come close to making a dent in the free service I received. I’m grateful to the benefactors who support Volunteer Healthcare Clinic, and to every single person who works hard to make the services available.