William Barnett, Ph.D., sits in a makeshift waiting room outside an office turned medical exam room, his red v-neck sweater showing slight tears around both shoulder seams.
On the second floor of the Society of St. Vincent de Paul’s Bank Street facility in Cincinnati’s West End, this English and literature scholar with decades of teaching experience waits. He shares stories from his 67-year life freely. A smile nearly always hovers at the edge of his mouth. Nearly always.
But since his wife died 10 years ago, Barnett’s life has been filled with his own health crises. He lost his insurance and his regular job, and now makes regular treks to find free healthcare options and pharmacies to access life-sustaining medications he needs.
Barnett travels 45 minutes to get to Bank Street, where he visits the food pantry, the free pharmacy and UC Open School, a student-led initiative that provides medical screenings to St. Vincent de Paul clients.
Barnett earned his doctorate from the University of Tennessee at Knoxville in the early 1970s, then taught English and literature at Austin Peay State University for 17 years. Now he works as a substitute teacher for six different school districts in Clermont County.
Despite traveling farther than most to get to St. Vincent de Paul and UC Open School, he sees the trip as an opportunity rather than a chore.
Students learn lessons of compassion
“I think they do a marvelous job,” Barnett said of the student volunteers who come from disciplines as diverse as medicine, pharmacy, dentistry, physical therapy and nursing. “I’ve been very impressed with all of the work that they do.”
He also speaks highly of the staff at St. Vincent de Paul who help him with medications.
“The pharmacy people treat me better than I ever got treated when I had private insurance during my teaching career,” he said. “They’re very professional and very concerned.”
Nearly every Saturday, students at the UC Open School health clinic screen people for various health conditions with the goal of improving their lives by decreasing emergency room visits and increasing health knowledge
Students who volunteer at UC Open School work in teams to check patients’ blood pressures and blood sugar levels. They offer flu and pneumonia vaccines under the supervision of UC Open School professors. Whenever possible, they start conversations about changing unhealthy habits and improving overall quality of life.
Luke Lewis, a second-year medical student and director of UC Open School’s steering committee, lists services offered in conjunction with St. Vincent de Paul:
- Oral health screenings
- A reduced price/free pharmacy
- Food pantry
- Eye screenings
- HIV screenings
- Medical insurance enrollment assistance
Barnett takes advantage of as many services as possible because they help him stay on top of his health. The patient who has spent his life educating others well understands that knowledge is power.
A gentleman and a scholar
Barnett has spent his life learning and building on his aptitude for the English language. As a college student at Davidson College in North Carolina during the early days of desegregation, he admired Richard Wright and Ralph Ellison. He lobbied to get an African American literature class added to class offerings as a professor at Austin Peay—it was a class he felt strongly about and knew needed to be taught.
“There was no African Literature class at Davidson when I was there,” Barnett said. “It was a very conservative, Southern curriculum.”
His teaching experience stretches outside of college campuses, though. He taught a variety of English classes at a private prep high school and spent time at a community college before beginning his current stint as a substitute teacher.
Barnett was married to Myra, also a teacher, for 23 years. They met while he was teaching at Austin Peay and he followed her to Jacksonville, Florida and Kentucky so they could share in each other’s teaching careers.
But Myra’s health started to fail. After struggling with severe diabetes and congestive heart failure, she ended up in hospice and died in 2004. He said he misses her every day.
After her death, Barnett had a massive heart attack. A high-school friend who was working on his Ph.D. in Philosophy at the University of Cincinnati came to pray with him at the hospital every day after his heart surgeries. When Barnett recovered, he helped his friend finish his dissertation and his friend graduated within a year.
Barnett is quick to point out that everyone—sometimes those you least expect—needs help sometimes.
“I thank God for them every day,” Barnett said of St. Vincent de Paul and UC Open School. “All the people there; the people in pharmacy, the people in the clinic, they do wonderful work.”