November 15, 2009
Free Health Clinic five years old
More than 1600 patients served through more than 7200
By Ed Ackerman
Pittston Sunday Dispatch Editor
Ann Cocco couldn't stay retired for long.
Principals of the Care and Concern Free Health Clinic. From left, Dr. John
Callahan, Nurse Practitioner Diane Barush, Bernice Ambrosino, RN, Gloria
Blandina, director, and Dr. Lewis Druffner.
When you serve people for an entire career, as Ann did while working for the
Welfare Department, it's hard to turn that enthusiasm off. "Actually,
impossible," Ann said on the second anniversary of the Care and
Concern Free Health Care Clinic which was her brainchild.
"I always had a dream of what I would do when I retired," she said, "and it
was really to open a shelter. But I knew that was financially out of reach.
Then one day something just popped into my head - a free health clinic, a
place to care for all those people who have fallen between the cracks."
Ann, a member of St. John the Evangelist Parish Community in Pittston, took
her idea to her friend Nancy Baiera who serves with her on the parish's Care
and Concern Ministry. Nancy took it to Deacon Jim Cortegerone and Jim
took it to pastor Msgr. John Bendik.
That was in April of 2007.
With Msgr. Bendik's blessing and a start-up grant from the Diocesan Appeal,
the clinic opened on Nov. 7, 2007, in the former Seton Catholic High School
building on William Street in Pittston. Ann remembers it well. So do Dr. John
Callahan, who volunteers his time, Gloria Blandina who serves as director,
Jim Cortegerone and Msgr. Bendik.
"We remember it because of the turnout," Ann says. "One person showed
up. We opened the doors at 5 p.m. and the first patient walked in at 7:25.
And all she needed was a form filled out."
Times have changed.
Now the staff tries to limit the weekly turnout to 21 patients but they have
been known to serve as many as 35 in one evening.
The clinic, as it has been since day one, is open Wednesday evenings with
registration from 5:30 to 6:30 p.m.
During the past 24 months, the clinic has:
• Treated more than 1,600 people.
• Logged more than 7,200 volunteer hours.
• Hosted internships for pharmacy and nursing students.
• Offered educational programs for chronic diseases.
• Coordinated lab tests and x-rays at no cost to patients.
• Assisted more than 800 people with Public Assistance needs.
• Coordinated care for patients with urgent dental needs.
• Offered nutritional counseling to those in need of this service.
The clinic has a licensed social worker available for counseling sessions and
has been able to assist hundreds of patients with free medication through a
grant from the CEO/Blue Ribbon Foundation.
Those statistics are provided by Blandina who adds, "People from White
Haven to Clarks Summit have come to the clinic in need of help with sore
throats to late stage cancer diagnosis. We have served them all. 50% of the
people are referred for some form of Public Assistance."
The impact reaches far beyond those who show up at the doors on
Wednesday, Blandina points out. "We just served our 1603th patient," she
says. "That's 1603 patients who did not go to the local ER. That amounts to
huge savings for everyone."
"My greatest thrill," Msgr. Bendik said, "is seeing the dedication of the
workers each and every Wednesday night. Their smiles, their eagerness are
still evident two full years later. In fact, they keep wanting to do more."
He explained that the free health clinic is one of three "arms" of the parish's
Care and Concern Ministry. The other two are a free food pantry and a free
kids' clothes closet. "All are staffed by volunteers," he said, "and not all of the
volunteers are from our parish. That makes it even more gratifying."
While none of those involved with the clinic are interested in taking credit,
perhaps the most reluctant is the one who is most integral, Dr. Callahan, who
has been on board since the beginning. Dr. Callahan insists the work he does
is not on a volunteer basis. "I get paid," he says. "I get paid in smiles. And
sometimes, in 'thank yous' … not that we expect it."
Dr. Lewis Druffner also volunteers his services as does Dr. Mary Sewatsky
when her schedule permits. Dr. Joseph Costello, a podiatrist, donates one
Wednesday a month, even though that is his day off, and his wife, Mary,
comes along to assist. "My daughter Kayla used to come along but she's now
at the University of Pennsylvania," Dr. Costello said.
The volunteers, who number more than 100, include registered nurses and
licensed practical nurses, a pharmacist and pharmacy students, social
workers, a dental hygienist and a licensed nutritionist. On any given
Wednesday there are usually 30 or more volunteers on hand.
"Being part of this is a very humbling experience," Blandina said. "The clinic
has taken on a life of its own. Whenever there's been a need, someone,
somehow has shown up just at the right time and suddenly we were offering a
new service. It is truly an incredible journey."
And what does Ann Cocco think of all of this?
"I think we should expand," she says. "I'd love to offer a well baby clinic.
And don't think for a minute I've forgotten about a shelter."
Ann just cannot stay retired.
Send donations to Care and Concern Ministries, 35 William St.,
Pittston, PA 18640. For information call 654-9923.