By FRED PETRUCELLI
There have been few people in these precincts who have touched so many in a positive way as has Mary Beard.
She was able to do this because she comes equipped with the metabolism of a hummingbird with oodles of restless energy.
The other day, Beard, soft-spoken and genteel at 76 years of age, spoke plaintively and ardently about her Pine Street Free Clinic and how painful it was to close the doors for the last time — after 10 years of exceptional service.
Succinctly, she made the case for the demise of the clinic — a dwindling staff, many of whom have been on board for years, a paucity of medications and her own staying power — all contributing to calling it a day.
Through it all, she has maintained that giving people a hand up, not a hand out, is the formula for moving ahead, even though she had operated her clinic on an eleemosynary base — free being the operative word.
The pitfalls of providing free medical services were obvious from the start, some 10 years ago, when she returned to Conway from a hiatus of living in California and working as a nurse, the occupation that gave her sustenance. She holds a nursing degree delivered to her from Compton College in Compton, Calif.
She was determined to open a small clinic where the clients could receive services without cost. "I saw a great need in my hometown of Conway, people in need of medical support, people without medical insurance, people thirsting for medical help in so many ways," she said. California provided a plethora of assistance unobtainable in Arkansas and Conway, especially medical assistance of a free kind.
If she were to create a clinic in Conway, she would have to find a suitable location. She began a search for a building on the east side of Conway, where the need was greatest, to house a clinic. She scoured the neighborhoods until her eyes fell on a nondescript building on Ingram Street, once a slaughter house and later a day treatment center.
She coaxed medical personnel to join a treatment team in a novel medical effort and opened the doors of a clinic sans cost, which was the basis for her operation. Over the years, some 25 clients or so congregated in the building one day a week to receive services, mostly basic but essential in nature. Medical personnel in Little Rock and Conway who were intrigued by the clinic’s concept offered their services as they could during spare moments. Once a pharmacy was in place, but this too fell victim to the costs which, not surprisingly, were too excessive for the clinic’s meager bank account.
To the question of the future of these patients, a pained expression creases Beard’s worried countenance. Many questions still remain for resolution. Yet, even though the Pine Street establishment has closed, its demise may not be complete if an angel appears offering essential help. Beard may be inclined to welcome the anesthetic despite her protestations. "But we can’t go on forever," she is wont to say.
If truth be known, operating a clinic is the passion that drove her to action. She never expected anything in return, only good health for her clients.
"I’ve been a nurse for 57 years and now I’m tired," she says in defense of her decision to close the clinic. She talks about her age as if passing on an unlikely news flash. She also defends the concept of a free clinic, even though she is cognizant of the fact that the idea of providing medical services freely is not feasible.
During her tenure on Pine Street, Beard was innovative, bringing a young psychiatrist on board, and emphasizing diabetes education, in addition to providing information on nutrition. In effect, Beard tried valiantly to give her patients what they needed and what they wanted.
For students in the neighborhood, Beard tried to turn their attention toward the computer age, managing through guile to obtain several computers and setting up class schedules in her home. But this attempt, unfortunately, fell victim to the diversions that interfere with young lives.
Beard’s enthusiasm and good works have not gone unnoticed. Hendrix College, in particular, felt inclined to bless her with an honorary doctor of humane letters degree in an impressive showing of love and appreciation for her work. The entire body of Hendrix College faculty turned out for a colorful and warm ceremony on campus where this pioneering woman was lauded.