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JOHN HEINEMAN A difficult swim across the English Channel brings attention to accessible health care in Iowa

The first time John Heineman glimpsed the English Channel, it was a gray, rainy day in June 2007. Waves crashed against the Folkestone, England, shore.

“I thought, ‘This is a horrible idea,’” says Heineman of his plan to attempt one of the world’s most challenging swims.

But conviction propelled him forward. The May 2007 University of Iowa graduate had already accomplished a lofty goal—a campaign to raise money for the Iowa City Free Medical Clinic and awareness about health care access.

Heineman’s journey across the channel began during his sophomore year, when he first volunteered for the nonprofit clinic that provides free health care to those without insurance.

The biology and political science double-major always thought he would pursue a career in medicine, but the clinic opened his eyes to the needs of the uninsured.

“I realized that health care is a basic human right,” Heineman says. “Before that—growing up in a small town—I didn’t know that some people didn’t have insurance. I took health care for granted.”

At dawn, Heineman descends into the English Channel.The UI water polo player and triathlete studied abroad in Oxford, England, during his junior year. Inspired by people he met who’d completed the grueling channel swim, he returned to Iowa City with a proposition for Sandy Pickup, co-director of the clinic—What if he swam the channel as a fundraiser for the clinic?

“He e-mailed me and said, ‘I have this idea,’” Pickup recalls. “We met for coffee, and I thought, ‘This is crazy that he’d want to do this.’ But I was also really taken with his dedication.”

The campaign was called Crossing for Care. While completing his senior year of college, Heineman prepared for the physical challenge by swimming 25-30 miles each week. He studied tidal charts—a peculiar activity for a guy in Iowa. And he worked hard to spread a message about the clinic and the need for accessible, affordable health care.

“In an ideal world, free medical clinics would be extinct organisms, as a state subsidized risk pool would help provide every citizen with health insurance,” he told anyone who would listen. “The free clinic is a Band-Aid until then.”

The Iowa City clinic, founded in 1971, provided services to more than 2,500 people last year. About half of the clinic’s annual budget comes from fundraising and grants.

Raising money didn’t come easily for the soft-spoken Heineman, who says nothing was harder than raising the first $1,000. But as he spoke to local businesses and organizations about the needs of the uninsured, support for his cause grew.

“The fact that he was willing to do this, to put himself out there, it was very generous of him in so many ways,” Pickup says. “Here he was—a senior in college—and he still did all of this…He wanted to swim the channel, but he didn’t just want to do it for himself. He’s someone who wants to accomplish things in the world for other people. ”

Heineman raised more than $19,000 for the clinic. And on July 11, 2007, he swam the English Channel in 12 hours and 40 minutes.

Heineman swims with ship in the background.

With the help of his brother Thomas—a UI student who followed his journey by boat—Heineman battled roughly 23 miles of endless salt water from Dover, England, to Calais, France, dodging jellyfish and exhaustion.

Heineman, who is doing HIV epidemiology research at the Medical Research Council Laboratories in Gambia this fall before beginning his studies in the UI Carver College of Medicine, hopes his experiences of the past year—fundraising, training for and ultimately completing the channel crossing, and championing for a cause he believes in deeply—will prepare him for anything he faces in the future.

“I learned a lot about setting a goal and trying to achieve it,” he says. “This whole endeavor taught me that taking a risk and making sacrifices is worthwhile.”

Story by Madelaine Jerousek-Smith; Photo by Tim Schoon

November 5, 2007