PORT CHARLOTTE — It was the first day it opened — Aug. 7, 2008.
A patient walked in and said she had had chest pains and a cough for eight months. She also had lost weight. The diagnosis was Hodgkin’s disease. The woman had no money, but because of the care she received from doctors at a free community clinic, she was able to be treated and is alive today.
That was the beginning of Virginia B. Andes Volunteer Community Clinic, under its former name, the St. Vincent de Paul Community Health Clinic. Today, the medical facility has grown to serve more than 20,000 patients who are uninsured, underinsured and economically disadvantaged.
More than 300 people toured the clinic’s new facility at 21297 Olean Blvd. — across from Fawcett Memorial Hospital and near Peace River Regional Medical Center as well — Tuesday evening at a preview party.
“The location is significant because the hospitals partner with our organization,” said the Rev. Art Schute, one of the founders. “They often do pro bono work, and in some cases even surgeries.”
Even though the new 8,000-square-foot building is still in the middle of renovations, clinic volunteers labeled each room to encourage visitors to visualize what would become of the drywall hallways and cement flooring. They set up chairs in the future waiting room and hung art on the walls.
The building eventually will house a free clinic, pharmacy and administrative offices.
“Basically, we wanted to show off what everybody has helped us achieve — especially Virginia,” said Noreen Chervinski, director of operations at the clinic. “Every person here has helped us save lives.”
Virginia B. Andes, for whom the clinic is named, donated more than $1 million for the clinic’s relocation. She was honored during the event, and a slideshow of her life was displayed on a projector screen. She also was presented with a bouquet of yellow roses.
Andes, 93, is a retired IBM systems analyst who studied pre-med at Kent State University with the intention of becoming a doctor. She ended up becoming IBM’s first female senior engineer.
“I am so happy to see this day finally arrive,” she said. “I always wanted make a donation while I was still alive so I could see what would become of it. I never thought we could
accomplish so much.”
While everyone was celebrating the clinic’s success, organizers reminded guests that purchasing the building was only the beginning. The clinic still will need about $70,000 to finish renovation, and about $300,000 annually to keep the clinic in operation.
About 180 volunteers provide more than 70,000 hours of service — a value of $4 million. Fifty other local medical providers partner with the Virginia B. Andes Community Clinic to administer specialized treatment. The clinic currently is seeking volunteers to donate annually. Naming opportunities also are available for the rooms in the facility.
The clinic first began with a small group of doctors reaching out to pharmaceutical companies and asking them to refill prescriptions for impoverished patients with long-term ailments.
They gathered free samples donated from other area medical facilities so they could expand and provide free medication. They opened a free pharmacy in 2000, a faith-based operation spearheaded by the local Society of St. Vincent de Paul, which states it is an international Catholic lay organization founded in 1833 to serve the poor, regardless of religious affiliation.
After Hurricane Charley hit, organizers expanded the pharmacy to a full-fledged clinic that was run out of a trailer. This is the clinic’s first “permanent” home.