Washingtonians of the Year 2011: Nancy Sanger Pallesen

Public Health Is a Family Legacy

By: Leslie Milk

Photograph by Jeff Elkins.

In the early ’90s, the immigration of refugees from North Africa and the Middle East to Northern Virginia increased dramatically. Many needed medical help. Local residents began talking about how to meet these needs. In 1994, the Arlington Free Clinic opened with Nancy Sanger Pallesen as its volunteer executive director. “I’ll start,” Pallesen told board members, “and when you have the money, you can pay me.” Today AFC provides nearly 11,000 on-site medical visits for 1,700 patients annually. It has 165 physician volunteers among more than 560 volunteers who do anything needed to keep the clinic running.

The clinic’s first breast-cancer patient was from Ethiopia. She didn’t tell her family back home, she said, because cancer means death in that country. Another woman who found a lump in her body during a self-exam class told Pallesen, “You didn’t just save me; you saved my family.”

AFC also offers mental-health services and physical therapy plus a pharmacy that dispenses prescriptions for whatever patients can afford. Virginia Hospital Center does x-rays and lab tests at no cost for AFC patients. The clinic receives minimal state funding but raises money from individuals, corporations, and foundations.

Public health is a family legacy for Pallesen. Her grandmother Margaret Sanger founded the organization that became Planned Parenthood. She recalls visiting her grandmother and the stories she told. What would Sanger think of her granddaughter’s work and the Arlington clinic? Says Pallesen: “She’d think this was good.”

This article appears in the January 2012 issue of The Washingtonian.