Honoring Dr. Kim

Kim Health Center

Tom Kim grew up in a physicians family. His father, a thoracic surgeon—and the former physician to Kim Il-sung, the grandfather of Korean leader Kim Jong-un—escaped Korea back in 1948 with his mother. They eventually came to the United States where his father worked to take care of tuberculosis patients.

“He came and then five years later in 1956, they invented the tuberculosis medicine and he didn’t have to do surgery. At that time—my dad was a thoracic surgeon—he would remove the lung as part of the treatment of tuberculosis patients. But he didn’t need to go back to Korea, so he decided to bring his four kids over,” Kim says.

Kim was one of those children. He escaped the Korean War and made his way to the United States, eventually going through schooling to specialize in hematology/oncology. He did his residency at the University of Tennessee Medical Center. And while he considered going back to Korea to work as a physician, he and his wife decided to stay in the United States. They had two children.

Dr. Tom Kim

As a physician, Kim saw the needs that existed with many patients in the East Tennessee. And in 1993, with his Christian faith as a backdrop, he decided he would open the Free Medical Clinic of America and ran it at night with the help of volunteers to aid working families who lacked health insurance.

“Everybody supported me ,” he recalls. “In order to come to the clinic, you had to be an American citizen or a green card holder and number two, you had to work…Working American people who have health issues and no health care could come to our clinic.”

Kim spent three decades running this clinic, which would at one point grow to have seven different locations throughout the region.

“I’m just so happy that our Knoxvilllians supported this clinic all the way,” he says. “I never had anybody reject the idea or any bad story come from the clinic…There are a lot of free clinics in the United States, but they all get grant money from the United States government…my idea was different.”

Kim never accepted this form of grant funding. He worked to maintain the clinic through the help of volunteers. “In Korea, they know me well,” he laughs. “They honor me a lot.”

Kim retired as a physician back in 2019. The clinic was eventually taken over by the University of Tennessee Medical Center, who continued to honor his legacy through keeping the clinic accessible to those without insurance.

“I love the mission, of providing affordable healthcare for that population where they don’t have insurance coverage but you’re also not on any Medicaid or Tenncare benefits,” says Erica Lyon, who today sits as the Executive Director of the clinic. “It’s vital to support that population that is working really hard to keep their head above the water.” Lyon calls her work with the clinic a “calling.”

Earlier this year, as onlookers watched, the Free Medical Clinic of America became the Kim Health Center, a tribute to the man who started such an important venture for the region. It incorporates not only primary care, but dental as well, and the name offered the ability to not only honor Kim’s work but leave things open enough to broaden the services offered in future years.

“In Knox County alone, there are 44,000 uninsured individuals,” Lyon says. Broadening the services at the clinic has meant that if someone comes in for a dental appointment but they find that they have another immediate need, they can be walked right to the primary care wing and get consulted and treated all in the same visit. “It never really occurred to me how much overlap there is, and we’re really seeing that in terms of the the clinical care that our patients need.” The clinic sees around 4,000 people a year.

Kim’s legacy remains implanted in the minds of many. While he stepped away from the medical profession and his clinic for a well-deserved breather—he is 78 today—the University of Tennessee Medical Center continues the work to provide those who are uninsured with access to healthcare, building on the vision of someone who started it all simply to give back.

“It’s the story of a doctor, of someone who came to America as a small child, fleeing a war-torn country and then built a beautiful American dream and then decides to give back,” Lyon says. “I mean, that’s what Knoxville is all about, right? People pulling together and creating something amazing.”

To learn more about the clinic, visit kimhealthcenter.org.

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