VERNON TOWNSHIP — John Crick, a retired 30-year veteran of the U.S. Coast Guard, sits in front of a computer at the Veterans Affairs Medical Clinic at the Park Avenue Plaza, pausing occasionally to take a drink of coffee from a ceramic cup.
Sticky notes with all types of messages are stuck to the computer and the desk to remind him of a phone number or a name. To the right of the computer are piles of paper, all identifying names of veterans who need assistance.
A long woven chain around his neck has a badge at the end of it, identifying Crick as a volunteer. He helps about eight hours a day, three days a week, scheduling other volunteers to drive vans of veterans to Erie to receive medical care not available at the clinic.
Crick has a list of about 35 drivers he can call to transport veterans. He matches drivers’ schedules with veterans’ appointments.
His problem now: He needs more drivers.
Although he has that hefty list, their availability varies. One driver recently had heart surgery; another spends the winters in Florida; and a third is a NASCAR fan who has taken his recreational vehicle to travel the race circuit.
“I joined as a volunteer about a month after 9-11,” he said, referring to the terrorist attacks on the United States on Sept. 11, 2001. “I felt I had to do something. My father firmly believed you have to give something back,” he said of his service. “I think he instilled that in all his children.”
Crick emphasized that drivers needn’t be veterans or retired. All ages and both sexes are accepted. “I have a gentleman who is 81 years old,” he said. Others include a husband-and-wife team. “We get them from all walks of life.” However, they must pass a TB (tuberculosis) test, can’t have heart problems and need a valid driver’s license.
The van and all expenses related to the trips are provided. Vans have been purchased by area service agencies such as an American Legion or Veterans of Foreign Wars post.
The clinic has five vans housed in the different areas, so drivers don’t have to come to Meadville to pick up patients.
Drivers sometimes have to leave home by 5:30 a.m. to get patients to Erie Veterans Administration Hospital where they may be transported to Buffalo, Cleveland or Pittsburgh for further treatment. The Erie VA Hospital coordinates all those transports.
They must remain in Erie until all patients are brought back to Erie later that day. “It may be a seven-hour day,” Crick said, noting that sometimes five patients are transferred. The good part is the hospital has a library and a computer center for volunteers to use while they wait.
“They are valuable,” he said of the volunteers. “Without volunteers, we would not be here.”
The clinic opened in 1996 and transported 56 veterans that year. Last year, 3,400 veterans were transported, Crick said, explaining that many of those were the same vets. “We have about 400 ‘frequent fliers,’ ” he said with a laugh.
The needs vary, he said, noting that sometimes there are more trips in the winter as patients “don’t like to drive in the snow.” Another increase was noticed when gasoline prices increased to more than $2 a gallon and patients couldn’t afford to drive themselves.
The clinic has others who work there as well, including greeters. It has a laboratory where veterans can have blood drawn for lab work. Doctors and psychologists also are on staff. Workers also assist with all types of programs for veterans, including pharmaceutical and rehabilitation needs.
For Marshall Jones of Meadville, the facility is a godsend. “Without the clinic, I would be up a creek without a paddle,” he said after having blood work done. “I could not afford the medicine. They take care of a lot of stuff.”
Jones, a retired truck driver and a Vietnam War veteran, noted everyone at the clinic is very helpful. “We build a camaraderie,” he said. “Without this clinic we would be in pretty bad shape, if not hospitalized.”
While Crick needs drivers, volunteers are needed in other areas as well.
Jane Smith can be reached at 724-6370 or by e-mail at email@example.com