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Damian Wilkerson’s parents brought him to the Free Children’s Screening Clinic on Saturday morning to get his left foot checked out.

The problem, his father, Rob Wilkerson, said, is that 10-year-old Damian walks in such a way that he wears out his left shoe every three or four months.

“We found out he’s not really a candidate for surgery,” Wilkerson, of Billings, said after an examination. “They think he’s best served by getting some physical therapy, strengthening the calf and the rest of the foot muscles and exercising the foot.”

The clinic at RiverStone Health is one of two each year put on by the Al Bedoo Shrine Hospital Corps. Its purpose is to help identify children who are candidates for help through Shriners Hospitals for Children.

Two out of the four patients examined by RiverStone Health physicians had conditions serious enough to refer them to the Shriners Hospital for Children in Spokane, said Scott Mullen, chairman of the Al Bedoo Shrine Hospital Corps. The other two will be invited back to the next clinic, in May, to see what progress they’ve made. Many of the clinics see as many as 20 patients.

“So far this year, we have sent about 50 new patients from Billings to the various hospitals for treatment,” said Mullen, sitting in the RiverStone lobby, wearing his burgundy fez.

Al Bedoo holds eight or more clinics around the eastern part of the state each year, he said, and in 2011 it put on 13. Generally, infants up to 18-year-olds qualify to be seen.

“We have done some corrections before the baby was born, as well as there are certain cases when the child is a patient before 18 years of age, we do treat them past that time,” Mullen said.

The hospital system includes 22 centers, 20 in the United States and one each in Canada and Mexico. In 2011, 309,000 patients received treatment system-wide, Mullen said.

Each month, the local hospital corps provides money for transportation and lodging to an average of 23 patients and their families that travel to Spokane for care. That number includes new and returning patients, Mullen said.

And when a child is referred to a hospital, that family is assigned a local Shriner as a sponsor who acts as a friend and a guide to the child and his or her family. The sponsor reaches out to the child on birthdays and holidays and answers any questions about the process a youngster will go through.

The list of medical ailments that qualify for treatment include orthopedic conditions, burns, spinal-cord injuries and cleft lip and palate. Most often, Mullen said, children and youth come in to the Al Bedoo clinics with orthopedic and toe-in/toe-out foot problems.

The families of children who qualify for the Shriners Hospitals services do not pay any out-of-pocket expenses for the care. If the child has health insurance, the company will be billed, Mullen said, but not the family.

“The conditions that are treated are done, regardless of the ability of the families to pay,” he said.

The local Shriners do lots of fundraising to help the families with lodging and transportation, Mullen said. And they have fun doing it.

“We do parades with our little carts and the Black Horse Patrol and clowns, and that is all public and great for us to be part of in the community,” he said. “But the essence of it is that we are, as Shriners, dedicated to helping children throughout our hospital system.”

Tana Wilkerson, Damian’s mother, knows all about that. She was referred to the Spokane Shriners Hospital when she was in fourth grade and returned regularly until she was in high school.

Problems with her back, her shoulders and her feet brought her in for help. She dealt both with scoliosis, a curvature of the spine, and flat feet.

“They put my feet in appliances for the arches, and they had me do exercises for my back,” Wilkerson said. “It was actually very helpful.”

So when her son experienced problems with his foot, it was only natural that she thought of Shriners Hospitals. If his condition worsens, Shriners will be there to help him, Mullen said.

“It’s a wonderful feeling to be able to know that you’re directing your efforts to helping a child that perhaps would not receive that kind of assistance,” he said.

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General Assignment and Health Care Reporter

General assignment and healthcare reporter at The Billings Gazette.