PEORIA — Poverty is not the only reason people visit Córdoba Healthcare, a free clinic in Peoria.

This past Sunday at least two patients were there because they can’t afford to use their health care plan.

“My insurance has a really high deductible,” said Khaja Mohiuddin, 29, while sitting in an exam room waiting to see the clinic’s founder, Dr. Wasim Ellahi, a gastroenterologist who diagnosed Mohiuddin with Crohn’s disease last summer. Since then, Mohiuddin has visited the clinic almost weekly as Ellahi works to stabilize the condition using drugs Mohiuddin can afford — some of the newer drugs are simply too expensive.

When he started talking to his friends and colleagues about starting a free clinic about three years ago, Ellahi, who works at Illinois Gastroenterology Institute in Peoria, was seeing a growing number of people unable to afford health care.

“The idea started over dinner,” said Muhammad Yousaf, president of Córdoba Healthcare Clinic. Yousaf, an engineer at Caterpillar Inc., listened as his friend talked about the issue. He offered to help set up the administrative side of the business, a large undertaking since clinics like this are rare and a whole new business structure had to be devised.

It didn’t take long for more of Ellahi's friends and colleagues to join the effort, and today there is a large contingent of volunteers who help run the clinic. They range from high school students to nurses to physicians working in a variety of specialties.

“One of the things that we noticed when were were trying to establish this place is that there are a lot of medical professionals who want to donate their time, but they don’t have the setup,” said Ellahi. “This is a way they can donate their time.”

Several area agencies also contribute to the Córdoba effort in a variety of ways. The University of Illinois College of Medicine at Peoria encourages students to volunteer at the clinic with the idea that, once they have finished their medical training, they will go on to do community service wherever they end up practicing medicine, said Ellahi. UnityPoint Health, Illinois Gastroenterology Institute, and Northwestern University are also participating in the endeavor.

In the two years the clinic has been operating, they have seen more than 1,200 patients, said Ellahi, who told numerous stories about their hardships.

“One patient who had lost her insurance was having difficulty swallowing,” said Ellahi. “She was very happy we would see her because nobody else would. After an endoscopy we found an esophageal cancer. We were able to hook her up with an oncologist, but she died about seven or eight months later because she was late getting treatment. That really impacted us as a reason why we are doing this.”

Ellahi recalled another patient who walked into the clinic while having a heart attack. Even after he was diagnosed, he refused to go to the emergency room because of the cost. Eventually the ER doctor read the patient’s tests and, over the phone, convinced the man to go the hospital, Ellahi said. Today the man is doing well.

Córdoba Healthcare survives on donations, many of which come from board members. Sometimes patients make donations, too — one helped set up the clinic’s website.

“Some of these patients we see all the time and they are really grateful,” said Kylie Mena, a third-year medical student at UICOMP who is part of the clinic’s student leadership team. “I had a patient offer to thread my eyebrows. She was so grateful and wanted to give back somehow.”

For volunteers, the real payback is the satisfaction of knowing they have helped someone, said Lorie Riggins, a nurse who first came to Córdoba to satisfy a requirement for volunteer hours in her schooling. The reward was so great she kept on volunteering even after the required hours were completed.

“We don’t get anything from it except that feeling you get when you help someone who wouldn’t otherwise get help,” she said. “It’s why I went into health care to begin with. I would do this full time if I could afford it.”

Córdoba Healthcare Clinic is open most Sundays from 1 to 4 p.m., and is located in the Heartland Health Clinic at 711 W. John H Gwynn Jr. Ave.

“Everybody needs to know about this place,” said patient Ketra Mathews, a dental hygienist who doesn’t qualify for low-cost insurance. “About six months ago one of my patients told me about this place, and I’ve already been here about three or four times.”

Mathews was having pain in her hands but she couldn’t afford to see a doctor. A single mother of two, Mathews’ health care dollars go to her kids first.

“It’s just a blessing Córdoba Healthcare is open for single people like me who can’t afford the co-pays.”

To learn more about Córdoba Healthcare Clinic, visit https://cordobahc.org, or call 340-8165.

Leslie Renken can be reached at 686-3250 or lrenken@pjstar.com. Follow her on Twitter.com/LeslieRenken, and subscribe to her on Facebook.com/leslie.renken.