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The woman sitting in front of the desk at the Medical Loan Closet was getting nervous.
She watched as the customer service representative wrote the values of various pieces of medical equipment on the loan form: wheelchair, $345; walker, $110; cane $20. The list went on, and the numbers kept adding up.
When the representative was done writing, the woman leaned toward him and spoke quietly.
"Would you please let me talk to the manager?" she said. "I need this badly, but I can't pay for it outright. I need to make arrangements to pay it over time."
The representative shook his head.
"No, no, you misunderstand," he said. "Those are the values — you get it free. It's a loan."
Tears rolled down the woman's face, though she was smiling with relief.
"That image says more to me about what I was doing than anything else," said Bob Cathers, a volunteer at the Medical Loan Closet who recalled the episode when a reporter visited recently. "That's why I love the job, and that's why I'm here."
The Medical Loan Closet, located behind Saint James Episcopal Church in Hendersonville, loans county residents everything from crutches to wheelchairs to hospital beds — no collateral, no security deposit, no cost. It's been so successful at helping people with those needs — and saving patients and their families tens of thousands of dollars — that it has outgrown its closet-sized space and is moving. The organization has launched an effort to raise $500,000 to buy a building on Asheville Highway.
In 2012, the non-profit organization made loans to 3,109 individuals. It estimated that including family members and caregivers it impacted around 10,000 people.
"There's nothing in Western North Carolina that's equivalent to this Medical Loan Closet," volunteer Dick Kirkman said. "It's a fantastic place. Most people are amazed."
Ellen Schwab is a volunteer who has also been on the receiving end of some of the equipment. Her husband was hospitalized with cancer and needed a large amount of medical equipment when he returned home. Though he could barely move at the time, Schwab said he is now doing great.
"Finances are a huge concern when somebody gets an illness, so it was great — I didn't have to worry about it at all," Schwab said. "I can't imagine buying anything like that."
The MLC began in 1965 as nothing more than a closet inside Saint James containing a wheelchair and a pair of crutches. It became independent from the church about three years ago when it outgrew its space and funding. Now it is preparing to expand again.
On top of its annual fundraiser, the organization plans to raise $500,000 to buy the former Pisgah Physical Therapy and Sports Rehab building at 1430 N. Asheville Highway. The building will accommodate 2,000 pieces of equipment that are now contained on site and in three storage units and a building belonging to a board member, and will give the organization a more spacious reception area.
Although the MLC receives grants to operate, most of the money for the new building will come from private donors.
"It's nothing that we're trying to do to build any kind of reputation or grand image," MLC Executive Director Sam Pratt said. "Every dollar we raise stays right in the county, and it helps those that desperately need it. That's what the driving force behind all this is."
After ABC World News featured the service in the fall of 2010, the loan closet received calls from people from across the country wanting to know more about the organization. That began the loan closet's nationwide outreach program to help start other MLCs.
"If every little town had one of these, you could really put a dent in the debt that is expected to be as much as 8 percent of the gross national product — medical problems," Cathers said. "I'm a believer in terms of outreach."
To help the organization, a 501-C3 organization, donors may mail checks or drop them off. The address is Medical Loan Closet, 766 N. Main St., Hendersonville, NC 28792.
Medical Loan Closet of Henderson County Inc.
766 N. Main St.
(behind St. James Church)
Hendersonville, NC 28792
Hours: Tuesdays and Fridays, 9:30 a.m. - 4:30 p.m.
Accepts medical equipment and donations