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Mobile medicine a godsend to poor

The waiting room is the size of a walk-in closet. The examining room isn't much bigger. But to Nancy McAvoy, this medical clinic on wheels is a godsend.

She and her three young children walked nearly 2 miles through Westminster to reach the Mission of Mercy van and its mostly volunteer staff of doctors, nurses and a dentist. With no health insurance and scant money from her husband's job as a laborer, McAvoy is grateful for the free health care."We're just lost without them," she said as dentist Daniel Stewart worked on 8-year-old Joshua's cracked front tooth.

Mission of Mercy, a nonprofit organization based in Emmitsburg since 1993, aims its primary medical care at the lost and lonely, the uninsured jobless and working poor, and those impoverished in spirit as well as funds.

Dr. Michael Sullivan, the only paid physician, sometimes prescribes prayers along with drugs. He and wife Gianna Talone-Sullivan, a Catholic pharmacist who says she founded the mission on God's direct orders, believe in "healing through love," the mission's slogan.

"That is what makes us different from every other primary health care provider out there," said Sullivan, 47, formerly an internal medicine specialist with Pennsylvania-based Geisinger Health System.

"Many of our patients have lost their dignity, lost their self-respect. Far greater than anything we do for them medically and dentally is to make them feel they are worth something and that people care about them," he said.

The traveling clinic, a 34-foot recreational vehicle, visits seven sites at least twice a month in Frederick, Carroll and Baltimore counties and Gettysburg, Pa. Last year, the mission launched similar services in Mesa and Phoenix, Ariz., where Talone-Sullivan lived before meeting her husband in 1992. They also plan to create a home for HIV-positive single mothers and their children in Baltimore.

The Maryland van averages 70 patients a day, mostly by appointments made through the churches and social services offices that play host to Mission of Mercy. The staffers, many of them from the Baltimore area, run the clinic with practiced efficiency in cramped quarters that still have room for kindness.

"Most of the people who come here are very broken, hungry for love and acceptance," Talone-Sullivan said. "We try to treat each person as if they're the most important person that ever existed."

Craig Glick, 40, a recovering drug and alcohol abuser from Baltimore, says the Sullivans pointed him toward salvation.

"The people here treat you like a real person," Glick said. "I have sworn to myself that when I am finally able, I am going to become one of the contributors to this program because this program works."

Individual donations of less than $5,000 each cover about two-thirds of the mission's costs of about $300,000 per year, executive director David Liddle said. Other funding comes from foundations, including the Foundation for Spirituality in Medicine in Baltimore.

Religion isn't pressed on the patients, but it is constantly on view aboard the van. There is a Virgin Mary statue on the dashboard, a portrait of her on one wall and a crucifix on another.

"The patients know it's OK to talk about spirituality with us," Liddle said. "We must respect the need of each patient, but the patients are often asking and open to precisely this issue."

Dr. Stewart, who closes his dental practice in Columbia one day a month to volunteer, said he doesn't discuss spirituality with his mission patients.

"Actions speak louder than words," he said. "In practicing what you preach, it rubs off on people."