Date: October 1st, 2000
When he retired to the beach after an illustrious biomedical research career, Jack McConnell, M.D. — integral to such advances as the tuberculosis test, Tylenol, and magnetic resonance imaging — tried to be "what they call a typical retiree: play golf, eat at restaurants and travel." Easy to do in Hilton Head, S.C., a community of 30,000 that boasts more than 30 golf courses and at least twice as many restaurants.
But 12,000 working poor also live in Hilton Head, and McConnell noticed them. Many did not have health insurance, or access to care. He wondered what could be done about it.
Then, he found the answer in himself.
"It wasn't until I stopped saying 'Someone should look into this problem' and realized that I was speaking to myself that it really turned around," McConnell said.
It turned around because in 1994, the Volunteers in Medicine free clinic opened, staffed by retired doctors, nurses, dentists, and lay people, all volunteers. Today, the clinic has supported more than 80,000 patient visits, and 43 clinics like it are either open or in the planning stages across the United States.
Behind the clinic's opening lay several years of hard work. McConnell got the town to donate land, architects to draw up plans, builders to donate materials, and an insurance company to provide malpractice insurance. He convinced the state legislature to pass a bill creating a special volunteer license for clinic physicians. He started the Volunteers in Medicine Institute, a non-profit foundation that assists in setting up clinics like the one in Hilton Head.
For him, the clinic is about more than health care; it's about transformation.
"At the outset we had two disparate constituencies, one fairly well off and one not well off at all," he said. "[With the clinic], we are transforming our town into a community where everyone cares for everyone else — not only cares for but cares about everyone else. At the deepest level, it's about transforming lives and transforming communities."
Those who visit the clinic are certainly transformed, but according to McConnell, the volunteers — who include an 80-year-old obstetrician/gynecologist — are changed as well.
"Those who have an opportunity to volunteer when they're retired are the ones that live longer, stay healthier, have less tension in their lives, and sleep easier," he said. "Volunteers tell me they have never felt better, they take less medicine, their blood pressure is under control... they are more contented with their lives than they've ever been."
McConnell would like his idea implemented on an even larger scale, matching the 150,000 retired physicians and countless other retirees with the 45 million Americans without access to health care. "Retired physicians bring experience, a sense of compassion and concern, and an ethic with which we once practiced — and should again — of taking care of all patients," said McConnell, who is 75. "The retirement community is a tremendous resource, and we're wasting it. Our culture is very youth-focused; we leave the sages to play shuffleboard."
Retirement isn't the end, said McConnell — far from it.
"It's a new beginning," he said. "It frees you to do what you always wanted to do. I wanted to do something that had merit and value for others and also nourished me. And this fell in front of me, and there it was."