NEW PORT RICHEY — At age 4, Florenda Fortner helped vaccinate cows on her parents' dairy farm. By age 12, she had delivered a calf.
Fortner's mother knew early on her daughter was destined for a medical career. After spending four years taking numerous advanced science classes at Gulf High School, which her parents also attended, this farm girl and only child graduated and left her hometown.
Like many of the bright kids, she left for more urban or exotic locales — St. Maarten for medical school, Ireland for clinical training, New Jersey for a residency.
But unlike the classmates who chose to make their lives elsewhere, Fortner came home. Without a second thought.
"This is where my family is," the 40-year-old internist said matter-of-factly. "It's important to take what you've learned, what you've accomplished, and give back to your community."
And give back she does.
Fortner began practicing in 2004 in Trinity, but she found rents too rich for the blood of a solo practitioner. Last year, Fortner, her nurse and office manager moved to a more affordable, stone-covered building in the heart of New Port Richey.
From that vantage point, she has watched the housing market collapse and Pasco's construction-dependent economy come crashing down with it.
Fortner always had volunteered with Good Samaritan Clinic, spending a day a month seeing needy patients who don't qualify for Medicaid and donating drug samples provided by pharmaceutical companies.
But as the financial health of her regular patients deteriorated, she wanted to do more. She recently began offering discounts to patients who lost jobs and along with it, their health insurance.
A first-time visit costs $70, while followups are $50.
"It beats the walk-in clinics," she said. "And it certainly beats the ER."
She also waives co-pays for some patients who have insurance but are facing hardship due to foreclosures.
"If someone needs to go over their blood work but can't afford $15 because their house is in foreclosure, we say we'd rather you come in and go over your blood work."
One of her newer patients is Joseph Walker, 52, of Holiday. He sought out Fortner after his doctor, who had previously accepted cash payments, decided to stop.
"Not having insurance, it's hard to find a doctor," he said. Some doctors wanted at least $150 per visit. "I can't afford that."
Walker, a roofer who was disabled in an accident, has to see the doctor a lot to manage chronic back pain. He likes Fortner because she's direct and avoids jargon.
"She tells me what's going on," he said.
During a recent visit, Fortner quickly reviewed his medicine and got him on his way. She called him "honey," an endearment she uses often with patients of both genders.
"She's my doctor," said Robert Evans, 55, a science teacher at Gulf who also taught there when Fortner was a student. "She's a good person overall. She always had a lot of incentives to make something of herself."
Evans, who does have health insurance, described Fortner in high school as a good student and "a little crazy" like most kids.
Evans also likes that she's compassionate yet gets right to the point. "She'll let you know what you need to be doing or what you don't need to be doing," he said.
Fortner's office is adorned with African art and scented candles. She gives out medical literature in gift bags. Despite the cosmopolitan decor, a little of the country girl remains.
The CD shelf in her office is an eclectic mix of '80s music with leanings toward country and blues. NASCAR photos hang on her wall.
Her favorite? The late Dale Earnhardt, a.k.a. Ironhead.
Her practice's lone doctor, Fortner won't say how many hours she puts in. She sees patients from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Monday through Thursday and Fridays by appointment. At night and on weekends, she carries a beeper.
"I take my vacations," she points out. A physicians group covers while she's away.
But really, there's no resentment or regret for any long days she may put in.
"You don't give back to expect something in return," she said. "If you are a true healer and truly love what you do, you give back."
Lisa Buie can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 909-4604.