Dr. James Bell, after beginning his work in family practice in 1986, quickly noticed that certain demographics in his Cedar Rapids community were not receiving the health care access they needed.
Born and raised a Christian, Bell attended a Christian Medical and Dental Society meeting in Chicago where he learned more about health care for the underserved, and the discussions there planted a seed within him.
“It was a challenge to look at what the un-met needs were in our community, and how we can serve those people,” Bell said. “At about that same time, there were people in Cedar Rapids that were interested in doing something already.”
With the help of these interested community members, Bell founded the Cedar Rapids Free Medical Clinic, also known as His Hands Free Clinic, in 1992. The clinic made its first home in the local YMCA and treated over 200 patients within its very first year.
The clinic quickly gained traction once it was up and running, but the real challenges came at the very beginning.
“How many uninsured patients are there, how many homeless people are there, how much lack of access to medical care is there already?” Bell said. “We had to think about putting clinics on a bus line so people could actually get there. We had to create hours that were available to people. A lot of it was logistics.”
Once those were established, Bell was tasked with engaging stakeholders, a process he said required patience. After roughly one year of assembling, the clinic was up for good. Despite switches in location over the years, it still stands strongly today.
His Hands is a spiritually based clinic, but it eventually branched off in what Bell dubs a “friendly split,” creating a second clinic with a more secular focus. Between the two locations, more than 6,000 patients are treated on an annual basis.
“The medical issues that we see them struggling with often get back to the roots of the social determinants of health. That’s the buzzword these days,” Bell said. “A lot of times the health ramifications are the tip of the iceberg. What we try to do is see beyond that immediate, urgent need to see what their real, underlying need is. That can be really challenging. It’s trying to take a more holistic view to that clinic visit to understand what the real problem is.”
Today, an estimated more than 10,000 without health insurance have received care from the collective clinics, and the services offered range from dental to chiropractic to physical therapy.
“There’s always going to be a segment of the population that’s underserved based on being under-resourced,” Bell said. “Volunteering really is the way to address that, because it’s not going to be addressed by the typical funding stream that is the American health care business.”
When he’s not volunteering at His Hands, Bell likes to spend time with his wife, four daughters and five grandkids. Jogging outside is one of his favorite ways to relax, and he loves jazz music—he even plays piano in a quartet.
When asked how he felt about receiving the nomination, Bell was humble, to say the least.
“The credit for the free clinic really belongs to a lot of people,” Bell said. “I personally would not wish to claim a lot of credit for what happened with our clinic, but I’m very honored and very grateful to be nominated. I think it’s wonderful.”
On Tuesday, April 17 at 2:30 p.m., Bell will be honored for his efforts along with five other outstanding individuals who serve throughout the state of Iowa. The event, organized by Volunteer Iowa, will take place in the State Capitol Building in Des Moines, IA.
Volunteer Iowa established the Iowa Volunteer Hall of Fame in 1989 after recognizing the significant amount of Iowans who donate high levels of service to their town, state, or nation. This honor is considered the most prestigious of its kind at the state level, and the individuals who receive it have taken immense strides towards bettering their community climates.
It’s safe to say that Dr. Bell has gone above and beyond these qualifications. More information on how to get involved with His Hands–with medicine, a listening ear, or otherwise–can be found here. There are all kinds of different ways to get involved.
“When you volunteer,” Bell said, “you get more than you give.”