One by one, New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft picked up a football and read aloud each of the names beneath the laces.
Patricia Thompson Leavitt, an assistant professor in the University of Southern Maine’s School of Nursing, grew more tense with each one.
Each specially decorated football, 26 in all, represented a charity honored by the Myra Kraft Community MVP Awards, named for Robert Kraft’s late wife. Most charities would receive $10,000. Only one would receive a $25,000 grand prize.
“We were seated right in front,” Leavitt said of the field-level luxury area in Foxborough’s Gillette Stadium. “As it got closer and closer and the chances were getting better and better, I got more nervous.”
When the burly, NFL team owner picked up the grand prize football and announced Leavitt’s name and her charity — the Leavitt’s Mill Free Health Center in Buxton — she was stunned.
“It was shock and disbelief,” she said.
Relief set in as she thought about how the money would help the little clinic she founded in 2002, how it would preserve and improve care to the 260 patients helped each year and how it would continue to be a training site for her undergraduate and graduate USM students.
“It’s almost magical,” she said. “Things come together here. I have always had faith that we will move forward and persevere.”
She has no choice, she said.
Leavitt’s father, a physician, taught her that everyone deserves access to health care. When she was a girl, he cared for people in the small Maine town of Pittsfield, Maine, often trading potatoes, apples and chickens for care.
“In our family, health care is a human right,” she said.
When she grew up and became an emergency room nurse, she learned the costs of denying people care. They arrived in her ER with untreated chronic illnesses and were sicker than they needed to be, she said.
It led her to start the free clinic on her small town’s Main Street, taking over a building that had previously been occupied by the telephone company. She and her staff of volunteers and students focused on helping uninsured people identify and treat conditions such as diabetes, hypertension, elevated cholesterol, thyroid problems and some cancers.
The Center is open 20 hours per week, and is staffed by volunteers: including the executive director, five nurse practitioners, five nurses, an internist, a dental hygienist and a dentist, a prescription assistance advocate, two phlebotomists, a dermatologist in the summer, an Affordable Care Act advocate, and 7-9 office/support people, as well as many student interns from a variety of disciplines. The Center serves as a teaching site for the University of Southern Maine, and also the University of New England Oral Health School and St. Joseph's College, providing internships for undergraduate and graduate students.
Undergraduates in USM’s School of Nursing have been working in the community on preventative healthcare projects, conducting interviews, holding stress reduction workshops and preparing members of the public to run in 5k races.
Graduate students in the Nurse Practitioner program have been working alongside Leavitt and others to assess and diagnose patients. They help author treatment plans and consult on needed prescriptions.
“They take care of the patients with us,” Leavitt said. “It really strengthens our work. They not only have a lot of energy, but they have assignments that need to be completed.”
With the Patriots’ $25,000 gift, the care will expand. Though some of the money will be used as a cushion against lean times, some will be used to fund blood screenings for diabetes and other illnesses.
“As providers here, we are ecstatic,” Leavitt said. “We get to order those tests that we know people need.”
Meanwhile, Leavitt and her clinic get a short reprieve from the stress that comes with offering services for free.
“We can step forward with confidence now and not be so fretful with the checkbook,” Leavitt said. “We shouldn’t have to be here, but we have to be here.”
The story was picked up by several press outlets including the Biddeford Journal Tribune, WGME CBS 13, and WMTW-TV.
Story by Daniel Hartill / USM Office of Public Affairs; Headshot by Alan Bennett / USM Office of Public Affairs