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Dr. C.J. "Dan" McGrew devoted his life to helping Hernando's poor get health care

SPRING HILL — By the time Dr. C.J. "Dan" McGrew retired for the second time, he'd already spent two decades in Hernando County upholding his philosophy of life.

"Wherever I am, leave it a little better than I found it," is how he described that philosophy to a St. Petersburg Times reporter shortly before leaving the family practice he founded in 1973.

As a member of a group called the Committee of 100, the retired U.S. Navy captain's lobbying efforts had already helped persuade HCA executives to build Oak Hill Hospital, where he would serve as the first chief of staff. He'd helped start the Hernando Community Blood Bank (now called LifeSouth) and served as president of the Hernando County Health Planning Council and the Hernando County Heart Association.

Fiercely loyal to Hernando County, Dr. McGrew stayed in Hernando until his death Tuesday evening at his Spring Hill home. He'd just suffered a seizure; his wife, Freda, and son Dr. David McGrew were by his side.

Even as he prepared to leave the family practice, Dr. McGrew was ramping up an endeavor with the Hernando Medical Society to open a free clinic for the county's indigent residents. He would spend about nine years directing the Hernando Doctors Clinic, working with other volunteering physicians to provide medical care to countless needy patients.

"There was no such thing as someone being turned away because he couldn't help them," said Walter Dry, who worked as a consultant on the clinic effort and became a close friend. "He either did the work himself or he referred them to someone who could help them."

The Maryland native's lifetime of service is rooted in a decision at the age of 12 to become a Christian. He would tell family members later that, even at that age, he felt called to one day serve God as a medical missionary.

Raised in Arlington, Va., the son of a mechanical engineer and a teacher, Dr. McGrew earned his medical degree from George Washington University and a degree in nuclear medicine from the University of Rochester.

He served in the Navy as commissioning medical officer on the nuclear submarine Scorpion and later worked for the Navy Bureau of Medicine and Surgery at the Pentagon.

By the early 1970s he was living in Orlando with his first wife, Olga, and their five children, serving as the commanding medical officer at the Naval Training Center. He took a sabbatical during that time to do missionary work in India.

As his military career begin to wind down, he looked west to a burgeoning area on the Nature Coast where his father had bought 40 acres of land, sight unseen, nearly two decades earlier. Spring Hill boasted about 5,000 residents but was growing quickly, ripe for a family medical practice, Dr. McGrew figured.

He struck a deal with the Deltona Corporation, the company developing Spring Hill, to build the clinic on the family's property situated on a limerock stretch of Northcliffe Boulevard. He commuted from Orlando to see patients on the weekends until retiring from the Navy in 1975.

That same year, Olga died suddenly from a respiratory illness. Shortly after, Dr. McGrew married Freda, a mother of three, and the family settled in Spring Hill.

It took a couple of more years to make "one red nickel," Dr. McGrew told the Times for the 1993 story.

But he was never bent on becoming rich. At a time when other physicians saw four patients an hour to maximize profits, Dr. McGrew insisted on seeing three. The extra time, he was convinced, translated to better care.

Dr. McGrew eventually grew tired of the increasingly bureaucratic nature of practicing medicine. He sold his half of the family practice, a transaction that resulted in a big financial loss when the buyer failed to pay, David McGrew said.

It was a difficult time, but Dr. McGrew had his military pension and some savings, so he focused on the Hernando Doctors Clinic, working as executive director to convince the county to subsidize the effort. The clinic operated on the second floor of the building on State Road 50 that still houses the blood bank.

At the same time, he worked to send medicine, computers, books and other resources to Utila, a tiny island off the Honduras mainland where he'd visited to do missionary work. He found time for himself, too, spending hours in the garden tending to vegetables, orchids and African violets. He liked to sail, swim, and track the family's genealogical roots.

The County Commission voted in 2001 to cut funding to the Hernando Doctors Clinic and direct the money to a new health care model called Access Hernando. It is now called Project Access and is run by the Health Department.

Dr. McGrew penned a letter to the clinic's volunteers and supporters explaining the clinic could not continue to operate.

"Thank you for your support over the years," he wrote. "Dr. C.J. McGrew will soon be retiring for the third and last time."

Dr. McGrew was vocal in his criticism of county officials, including social services director Jean Rags. County officials, in turn, said Dr. McGrew and the clinic's volunteers could have better handled the transition so patients wouldn't go without care.

The controversy inevitably receded into memory. Dr. McGrew's focus on poor patients, however, lived on, Rags said Thursday.

"It was the door that opened many other doors for health care in Hernando County," she said.

Tony Marrero can be reached at (352) 848-1431 or tmarrero@sptimes.com.

.Fast facts

Funeral services

A funeral service for Dr. C.J. "Dan" McGrew is set for 10 a.m. to 11 a.m. today at First United Methodist Church, 9344 Spring Hill Dr.

A graveside service will follow from 11:30 to noon at Brooksville Cemetery, 1275 Olmes Road.

Dr. C.J. "Dan" McGrew devoted his life to helping Hernando's poor get health care 08/25/11 [Last modified: Thursday, August 25, 2011 9:37pm]

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