Nonprofit unveils plan to build health care bus in Sen. Pinckney’s name

Jennifer Pinckney, widow of Clementa Pinckney, left, Dr. Youlanda Gibbs, founder of The Palmetto Palace, and Kylon Middleton, a close friend of Clementa Pinckney, unveil plans for the new Clementa Pinckney mobile health care unit to honor the late Rev. Pinckney Tuesday at MUSC.

Last year, Youlanda Gibbs held a press conference on the horseshoe at the Medical University of South Carolina to unveil her vision for a mobile medical bus that would roam the Lowcountry providing free preventive care to uninsured, poor patients. 

She wanted to name the bus after the late Sen. Clementa Pinckney, who, his colleagues remember, was passionate about improving health care access in Charleston, Beaufort and Jasper counties. 

There was only one problem with her idea. Gibbs had no money to pay for it. 

“It’s a wonderful rendering, but it does cost a lot of money,” said Kylon Middleton, one of Pinckney's close friends, who spoke at the press conference. 

Finally, Gibbs' dream is becoming a reality. With a hand from Rep. Gilda Cobb-Hunter, an Orangeburg Democrat, Gibbs has secured an anonymous donation to buy the mobile unit and outfit it with the latest technology. It will include a dental suite, a doctor's office and telehealth equipment that will allow patients and providers to video conference with specialists. The bus will cost more than $300,000, not including the ongoing expense of staffing it. 

"I am so excited," said Gibbs, the executive director of Palmetto Palace, a local nonprofit group that provides discounted hotel rooms and welcome packets to out-of-town family members who are visiting hospital patients in Charleston.

Gibbs said she met with Pinckney before his death and he expressed enthusiasm about the Palmetto Palace mission. They even discussed the idea for a mobile medical unit, she said.

"He was so empathetic and passionate to what we’re doing and he wanted us to continue serving his families (in his district)," Gibbs said. "He immediately started looking for funding for us."

When his life was cut short by a gunman who opened fire inside Emanuel AME Church, Gibbs made it her mission to make the mobile medical unit a reality. 

"I went to visit everyone in Columbia to say, 'Hey! This is what Senator Pinckney wanted. Let’s try to finish this vision.'" 

Cobb-Hunter believed in her. And she knew Pinckney had been passionate about improving health care access in his district. 

"His passion stemmed from his mom's late diagnosis of a health concern that, had it been caught earlier, may have lengthened her life," Cobb-Hunter said. "That's why he was so passionate about the need to provide preventive health care services."

Tens of thousands of patients in the district Pinckney represented in the General Assembly do not have health insurance, according to recent Census data. The unit will serve those who are uninsured or under-insured, Gibbs said. She expects it will be finished next year. 

Cobb-Hunter underscored the importance of the project. 

"The unit is important because the rural makeup of the district exacerbates the lack of access to health care for a large number of people. That lack of access winds up costing more in the long run because prevention is missing," she said. "Dr. Gibbs' passion and commitment to this project makes it impossible for me to say no when she reached out to me."

Reach Lauren Sausser at 843-937-5598. 

Reach Lauren Sausser at 843-937-5598.