Eula Hall got home from her son’s baseball game one night in 1982 just in time to see a big piece of her life’s work go up in flames.
Hall had scratched to help create and sustain the Mud Creek Clinic in a rural eastern Kentucky so people could receive health care, even if they couldn’t pay, and it was burning to ash.
Hall wept that night, but she rallied clinic employees and volunteers the next morning to get back in business. She pushed the telephone company to install a phone on a willow tree next to the rubble of the clinic, and staffers scrounged for supplies at convenience stores.
The clinic staff saw patients for two days at a picnic table near the tree before moving operations to the cafeteria of a nearby elementary school, then ultimately to a new building.
“We never missed a day,” Hall said in a recent interview.
Such is the grit of Hall, who at age 90 still works every day at the clinic, now called the Eula Hall Health Center.
Hall grew up poor on a small farm in Pike County and has an eighth-grade education, but she has received four honorary doctorates for her work.
Access to health care was spotty in rural eastern Kentucky when Hall was a child in the 1930s.
There were few doctors, and many people couldn’t afford to see the ones there were. Tuberculosis was common, and there was little routine preventive care, she said.
Many women had their babies at home, and complications could turn deadly. Hall saw her mother nearly bleed to death while giving birth when Hall was 6 years old.
Her father gave a neighbor a cow and a hog to bring a doctor from Pikeville, but the baby died, according to a 2013 biography of Hall by Kiran Bhatraju.
She had a neighbor who died from tetanus after stepping on a nail. She saw classmates die from whooping cough.
“People suffered, they really suffered and died for the lack of health care,” she said.
In the 1960s, she got a job as a community organizer through a federal anti-poverty program, and she decided to make access to health care her mission.
She ultimately founded the Mud Creek Clinic in 1973 with $1,400 in donations, when she was in her mid-40s. Two doctors from a Catholic hospital in the county saw patients one day a week at first, accepting $1 a day for their work.
The clinic had a sliding scale for payment based on the patient’s income. The scale went all the way to zero. “Nobody was turned away regardless of their income,” Hall said.
At Hall’s request, the United Mine Workers of America approved paying the clinic to see miners and retirees in the early days, providing a steadier source of revenue for the clinic.
The clinic proved so popular it outgrew its first small rented space. Hall moved to a mobile home and set up the clinic in her house, converting bedrooms into examination rooms.
Money was tight, so she asked people to donate glass baby food jars, which the clinic boiled to sterilize and used as specimen jars for urine samples. She put a rack on top of her Volkswagen to take the jars to the lab, and they clinked at every bump. “You could hear me coming a mile away.”
The clinic didn’t have a pharmacy in the early years, so she worked late many nights to deliver medicine, with her children in tow.
The woman who grew up hard turned out tough, and she didn’t hesitate to pester politicians if she thought it would help the community.
In addition to health care, she agitated for free school lunches, tackled contaminated well water and advocated for miners with black lung disease.
Hall makes no apologies for playing hardball if she thought it would help people in need.
“I’ve fought like hell to get what we’ve got,” she said. “I don’t care who I stand up to, as long as I’m right.”
The clinic was the centerpiece of her efforts, so it was one of the worst days of her life when it burned in June 1982. Officials said it was suspicious, but no charges have ever been brought.
Hall said there was no thought of not trying to rebuild. “Our patients were so sick that you just couldn’t walk away and say, ‘We don’t know what we’re gonna do,’ ” she said.
In the end, supporters raised $100,000, more than the $80,000 needed to qualify for a $320,000 grant to build and equip the new clinic that opened in 1984.
‘People’s not poor by choice’
The clinic offers a range of medical services these days, including primary care, dental care, optometry and a pharmacy.
About 40 percent of the patients are Medicaid participants, but the clinic has a sliding fee scale for uninsured people and provides free care if needed, said Ancil Lewis, chief executive of Big Sandy Health Care. The clinic at Mud Creek became part of Big Sandy in 1977, allowing it to receive federal money.
The Eula Hall Health Center has 15,000 to 20,000 annual patient visits, Lewis said.
In terms of access to health care and the quality of care, Hall said, eastern Kentucky is much improved.
The need remains great, however, and her philosophy on access to care remains straightforward: Everyone’s entitled to adequate health care.
“Nobody should have to suffer for the lack of health care in a country like ours,” she said. “People’s not poor by choice.”