Sacred Heart Clinic is a community-wide effort

By Ricardo Gandara
Correspondent

A medical clinic can be a place of uneasiness and uncertainty, particularly for those who are sick. Sacred Heart Community Clinic, which offers free to low-cost health care, does its best to alleviate those feelings as soon as patients walk through the doors.
Upon entering the clinic on the grounds of St. William Parish in Round Rock, the caregivers — most of them volunteers — evoke a welcoming, family feel. From Billye Navarro, a retired social worker, who checks in patients, to registered nurse Pam Rabaey and family practice doctors Rudy Uriegas, and his wife Sabrina Bueno Uriegas, they are kind and gentle. The Uriegas team was among the first volunteers when the clinic opened in late 2010. Sabrina now serves as the medical director.
“They care about you. The providers are always smiling,” said Laura Rodriguez, who first sought care when the community clinic opened. “They even pray with you.”
Rodriguez, 62, needed help with diabetes and high blood pressure and cholesterol. As a way of giving back to the clinic, she volunteered her time by cleaning the facility. 
“Muy agradecida (very grateful),” she said.
There are many stories of gratitude to tell — not just those from the patients who receive free or low cost health care, but also from the volunteer doctors, nurses and medical technicians who give their time to care for patients who are not insured or underinsured. It’s difficult to tell who benefits more, the patients who need the help or the volunteers who give so much of their time and skills.
“It takes a caring heart and devotion to the mission to be here,” said Nancy McMillen, the office manager and a former high school principal. She interviews patients to determine their eligibility for services. To qualify, a person must live in Williamson County and not receive Medicare, Medicaid or CHIP or have medical insurance. A patient must also fall below the federal poverty guidelines. Services are free but sometimes patients are asked to pay a nominal fee if they can afford it. The out-patient clinic specializes in general medical care but does not provide emergency care, birth control, prenatal care, abortions, sexually transmitted disease testing, narcotics, workman’s compensation claims or care for injuries from accidents.
Sacred Heart is a dream realized by Liz Burton-Garcia who is the executive director. Recently widowed in 2003, she sent her teenage children on a mission trip to Mexico. Burton-Garcia noticed the great appreciation they had for their blessings when they returned, which triggered her interest in mission work. After getting remarried to a widower she met in grief classes, she went on a mission trip to a hospital in Arteaga, Mexico, in 2007. While bagging vitamins, she found her calling. She went on more mission trips to Colombia, Peru and Guatemala. 
“Then I had a dream Feb. 6, 2010, to open a clinic,” Burton-Garcia said. And she went into action mode. 
First, she gave up the pink Cadillac and a successful career of selling Mary Kay cosmetics. Backed by faith and marketing experience, she pursued the near insurmountable task of opening a clinic for the needy. Inexperienced in such things, she approached Father Dean Wilhelm, pastor of St William Parish, who gave her his blessing to proceed, as did Bishop Joe Vásquez. 
Then Burton-Garcia, experienced in sales, began to sell the idea. She researched and made phone calls. Nancy and Nyle Maxwell, also parishioners of St. William Parish, spearheaded the first fundraising campaign, which brought in $320,000. The clinic was built on church property in 2007, almost at cost with the help of businesses and organizations. 
Sacred Heart saw 480 patients that first year and has been on a roll since. In 2016, 4,800 people received services. 
“We’ve become a primary care place when people have nowhere else to go,” Burton-Garcia said. Nearly all the seven doctors, five nurse practitioners and two physician’s assistants who have regular jobs contribute their time. Sacred Heart also works with a dozen health providers — hospitals and health care organizations — to meet patients’ needs.
Recently, Sacred Heart has added much needed dental services and doubled its size to 4,200 square feet. The expansion includes five more medical exam rooms and three dental rooms. Burton-Garcia said St. David’s Foundation donated three dental chairs and equipment. Architect Keith Hickman donated his services for the expansion, as did Hagood Engineering. CHASCO Construction built the addition at a significantly discounted rate. 
It takes a community effort to care for the county’s needy. Seton Hospital Williamson processes lab tests at no cost. North Austin Medical Center and Round Rock St. David’s Hospital has donated funds and some of the medicine that patients need. The Breast Cancer Resource Center in Round Rock provides mammograms. Scott and White Hospital takes referrals. 
Burton-Garcia has been around long enough to know something greater is at work. “God provides the volunteers and donors. My job is to stir it all up and make it work. When a doctor says we need this or that, I get on the phone. The Holy Spirit works in this building,” she said.
Dr. Sabrina Bueno Uriegas, the clinic’s medical director, said patients receive quality care for chronic diseases such as diabetes, hypertension, anxiety, obesity and depression. 
“We take care of the whole person, in a comprehensive manner that takes in the physical, emotional, economical and spiritual needs,” she said. “Patients are free to express their faith, and we pray with them.”
Joe Davis, who is an AmeriCorps worker on loan to the clinic for a year, has an extensive background in hospital administration and health care consulting focused on mission work. What he sees at Sacred Heart is a lot of love. 
“The volunteers here have a passion to serve the poor. They give patients quality service with such love and care. These are people who have pledged to make a difference in people’s lives,” he said. 
Sacred Heart’s impact is recognized county wide. “The clinic is a great partner in serving the half-million people in the county. Sacred Heart is uniquely successful and just an incredible place,” said Matt Richardson of Williamson County and Cities Health District.
Instead of filling emergency rooms where care is more costly, people with no insurance make their way to Sacred Heart, he said. The health care district gives the clinic flu shots to distribute for free.
While Sacred Heart operates smoothly to help those in need, much work remains. Burton-Garcia said the new dental clinic needs donations for operating costs and dental services. Volunteer dentists and dental assistants are also needed. 
The clinic is located at 620 Round Rock West Dr. in Round Rock at the rear of the St. William campus. It’s open Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday, but hours vary. Appointments and walk-ins are accepted. The clinic’s annual fundraiser, the Heart to Heart Gala, is April 1. Visit www.sacredheartclinic.org or call (512) 716-3929 for details.