In 34 years of practice, cardiologist Steve Goldman has formed a pretty good idea about his fellow doctors.
Most start out full of altruism, he says, ready to save the world. Then reality sets in. They get caught in the medical industrial complex, "the meat grinder.''
"It becomes a business,'' he said last week as we toured the Good Samaritan Health Clinic in New Port Richey. "This place allows doctors to recapture that spirit, the reason they got into medicine in the first place.''
Goldman is among the pioneers at the free clinic, which began on a shoestring 23 years ago. It has become one of Pasco's brightest points of light, to borrow a term often used by the first President George Bush to recognize the power of volunteerism.
Last year alone, when the clinic earned the West Pasco Chamber of Commerce's award as nonprofit organization of the year, volunteers logged more than a half-million hours. The benefactors: county residents 18 to 65 unable to afford health care coverage.
Sixty health care providers, including doctors, dentists, nurses, pharmacists, medical technicians and clerical staff, donate their services at the clinic on Aspen Street, along with another 80 specialists who see the patients at hospitals and surgery centers. More than 4,000 patients will receive their attention this year. Without the clinic, many of them would wind up in a hospital emergency room.
Some folks outside the medical field hear about the good work and just show up at Good Sam to help out — like Dave Parris. Shortly after Melissa Fahy took over as chief executive officer seven years ago, she mentioned to Parris that a roof leak had stained walls in her office. They knew each other from Rotary. She had been president of the Port Richey club, he the president at New Port Richey.
Parris, who owns the local Krauss Organization real estate office, discovered mold and quickly enlisted other Rotarians to take care of the problem. Since then, he has routinely showed up to help maintain the 10,000-square-foot building, a line item that would otherwise be quite expensive.
"Just being there has made me realize how important the clinic is to so many people,'' Parris said. "I had in my mind that these were deadbeats looking for something free. And then I met single mothers with three children, trying to make ends meet with low-paying jobs.''
People who "fall through the cracks,'' Fahy said. They don't qualify for Medicaid or Medicare. They can't afford health insurance.
Parris, 60, has been battling cancer since May but managed to build a small room where clients can pray or simply enjoy quiet reflection. This is the result of a donation by Lynnda Speer after her husband of 52 years died last August. Roy Speer was a lawyer and developer best known for founding the Home Shopping Network.
"It was Lynnda's wish to inject a spirituality in the clinic,'' said Goldman. "From a medical point of view, the belief in a loving God gives people strength and aids in recovery.''
The clinic receives no federal or state funding and depends on donations and grants to meet its $500,000 operating budget. Three years ago a $100,000 grant from the Morton Plant Mease Foundation paid for a full-time nurse practitioner, which allowed for expanded hours.
The clinic's major fundraiser each year honors the county's nurses as part of National Nurses Week. Fahy expects to net $80,000 from the May 10 event at Spartan Manor, including $10,000 contributions from the Medical Center of Trinity and State Rep. Mike Fasano, R-New Port Richey.
Such generosity helps meet the payroll and the electric bill, but the clinic still depends on an old computer system. A volunteer technician keeps it running — most of the time.
"We know we can pay our bills next week,'' said longtime board member Elinor Paladine, "but next year? Our income has not kept pace with the number of new patients.''
That, of course, has been the case for 23 years as the clinic has evolved from a cramped double-wide trailer to the modern facility where inspiration is never in short supply.
"Miracles happen here,'' said Goldman. "You look around and you get a greater view of life, a view of humanity.''