NANCY JEFFRIES, 63, and her husband worked together as contractors, doing additions and remodeling, and spent about $1,200 a month on health care until they had to drop it about three years ago.
"It became cost-prohibitive," said Jeffries, of Malvern. "It was the first time in my life without health insurance."
Then the depressed housing market and a work injury forced them to close their business.
But her Parkinson's disease, cataracts and other medical ailments still loomed.
That's where The Clinic, in Phoenixville, came in.
The Clinic, a nonprofit health center in the former rectory of St. Peter's Episcopal Church, treats patients without insurance, and is funded through private grants, donations and medical personnel who donate their services. Patients pay what they can, which covers about 16 percent of its annual costs.
Jeffries went to the Clinic after her daughter forced her to go, she said, with a laugh. "I was extremely depressed . . . and I was extremely apprehensive about going to a free clinic."
After going, she said, "I felt completely at ease. I didn't realize there were still people in this world that still cared so much for other people instead of just themselves."
"We believe there is a right for basic medical care," said the Rev. Marie Swayze, referring to the philosophy also held by the clinic's co-founder, Dr. Lorna Stuart.
In 2000 Swayze, then rector of St. Peter's, was doing brisk business in the food pantry she ran at the church. Stuart, a parishioner with a private family-medicine practice, started occasionally giving treatment in the pantry.
The two were sitting outside the then-boarded-up rectory when Stuart asked, "Why can't we put a clinic together?"
So, Stuart gave up her lucrative practice and, with the help of Swayze, an anonymous donor and a ton of volunteers and elbow grease, the two opened The Clinic in 2003.
It served less than 1,000 patient visits that year, Swayze said. Since then, Stuart has been featured on CNN as a "Hero of the Year," and the health center has become filled to the brim, logging about 1,000 visits a month.
Earlier this week, Jocelyn Romano, 40, a waitress with two children who also transcribes medical records, came into The Clinic looking for treatment of a cyst on her head that had made it too painful to go to work.
"The pain was excruciating," she said.
Her normal approach is "treat with over-the-counters and suffer," she said, smiling.
She wasn't willing to go to the ER, she said, because of the expense and the wait.
"Both my jobs are based on available work; if there's not a lot of work, I don't get paid . . . people just aren't hiring," she said.
And that makes trying to find affordable health insurance almost impossible, she said.
"It's a constant circle, trying to catch up every month," she said.
An army of volunteer doctors, nurses and other staff keep The Clinic running, providing general family practice. Specialists chip in time as well: gynecologists, drug-abuse counselors, an ophthalmologist, a dermatologist, and more.
Even with all the help, "it's hard to get as many people in here as need to be seen," said Debra Shupp, The Clinic's director of development.
"We're using every inch of space," Swayze said. "If we had more space, we could help more people."
The Clinic is looking for ways to expand, Shupp said, but they're waiting until the outcome of the health-care reform bill.
But even if there's government health-care coverage in 2013, Swayze said, The Clinic volunteers would still be helping patients.
"We're not going anywhere. There are millions of people without insurance, and thousands of people in this area. There are always going to be people who fall through the cracks."