The Free Medical Clinic, 6209 Chapman Hwy., was founded by Tom Kim MD in 1993 as a way to provide free medical care to the working uninsured. Dr. Kim was affiliated with UT Medical Center, specializing in internal medicine and hematology-oncology. He ran the clinic at night with volunteers, including his wife, Hwa, a pharmacist who handled family business (including two kids) while Dr. Kim was working/volunteering.
Can this 30-year-old clinic survive? Dr. Kim retired in 2019. He is now 78 and tomorrow, Wednesday, January 25, from 3-4 p.m., his friends and clinic volunteers will celebrate a rebirth of the clinic, now rebranded as Kim Health Center.
The event is open to the public, said Erica C. Lyon, the clinic’s executive director. And parking will be at Colonial Heights Methodist Church, 6321 Chapman Hwy., with a shuttle to the clinic. Expect remarks from Knoxville Mayor Indya Kincannon; Knox County Mayor Glenn Jacobs; Dr. Keith Gray, chief medical officer at UT Medical Center; Dr. Randall Dabbs, board chair, Free Medical Clinic of America; and of course, Dr. Kim.
In an interview, Dr. Kim said in his native Korea, villagers marked the passing of a tiger by preserving its skin. In America, when a person passes, “they put his name on a building.”
What a remarkable interview. Tom Kim is stubborn, opinionated and probably sings Lee Greenwood’s “Proud to be an American” in the shower.
He comes from a family of physicians and Presbyterians. His father was physician to Kim II-sung, grandfather of current North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un, and his grandfather was a Presbyterian minister. The family rejected a life of privilege to emigrate to the United States. Tom Kim’s dad came first, in 1952, and Tom Kim soon followed, in 1961. But first, he made a dramatic escape to Seoul. At age 6, he clung to the top of a boxcar in what he recalls as “minus 10 degrees weather” to travel some 100 miles to safety.
He dreamed of getting training and returning to practice medicine in Korea. But he came to Knoxville – to the University of Tennessee for his residency – and never left. “It’s a good place. We raised two kids here, and I’m a grandpa now.”
He’s also a Presbyterian. “Cedar Springs Presbyterian for 33 years.”
Dr. Kim coordinated efforts to buy and install a granite monument (stone imported from Korea) to honor all veterans of the Korean War. “Freedom is not Free,” it states in both English and Korean. It stands at the East Tennessee State Veterans Cemetery on Lyons View Pike.
The Free Medical Clinic of America has averaged 4,000 patient visits a year. East Tennessee doctors and dentists have volunteered time, while UT residents and medical school volunteers have benefited from supervised time, said Erica Lyon. “The clinic defines how communities can take care of their neighbors’ well-being. In the last few years, the clinic has added a dental wing, increased bilingual services and added medical partnerships to build provider development in our underserved region.”
Wednesday’s celebration will show the viability of the Kim Health Center – remodeled building, volunteer practitioners, grateful patients. Tom Kim’s vision will outlive him and probably last as long as that hunk of granite on Lyons View Pike.
Sandra Clark is editor/CEO of Knox TN Today Inc.