Medscape Medical News

Retired Physician Honored for Work With Poor, Uninsured

Lisa Pevtzow

The most rewarding decade of Dr. Matthew Mandel’s professional life has been this most recent one, he says, when as a retired physician he helped build a free medical clinic in his community from the ground up.

“Professionally this has been the best 10 years of my life,” he said.

And for that work, as the co-medical director of Volunteers in Medicine (VIM) Berkshires, Dr. Mandel was honored last month with the American Medical Association Foundation’s Jack B. McConnell, MD Award for Excellence in Volunteerism. The award, bestowed during the American Medical Association’s National Advocacy Conference, recognizes the work of senior physicians who through the spirit of volunteerism help patients gain access to healthcare. A $2500 grant will be given to VIM.

Over the past 10 years, Dr. Mandel helped create and grow VIM Berkshires, a free healthcare clinic in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, for uninsured and underinsured, low-income residents. Mandel is in charge of recruiting many of the VIM volunteers, which now number about 150, credentialing its medical personnel, and referring patients to specialists. He also raises much of the $600,000 the clinic needs to keep its doors open each year.

“This work is incredibly gratifying,” he said.

The grandson of a surgeon, Dr. Mandel graduated from Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio, with a degree in psychology. He began medical school in Tours, France, before transferring back to the United States and graduating from Hahnemann Medical College in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He is board certified in anesthesiology, specializing in pediatrics and high-risk obstetrics.Dr. Mandel’s second career as a volunteer began after his retirement from Providence Hospital in Holyoke, Massachusetts, where he chaired the Department of Anesthesia. He and his wife, Catherine, now the volunteer director of communications for VIM, moved to Stockbridge, where they had a small summer cottage. They became involved in the life of the community (which is the summer home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra and the setting of several renowned arts festivals), and he learned to weave.

In 2003, Dr. Mandel attended a 2-day seminar run by a local nonprofit. At the end of a fundraising workshop and knowing that he had recently retired from the operating room and scrub suits, the presenter asked him whether he would be willing to help create a free medical clinic in the area.

“A lot of people don’t realize the tremendous need there is by the very people who work behind the scenes — in the kitchens and the gardens and in the arts — to make this such a terrific place,” he said. Many of the artists, musicians, and dancers who make the Berkshires a magnet for the arts are uninsured or underinsured, as are local business owners and employees, he said.

All services at the clinic, from physician and dental visits to psychiatry, optometry, nutritional and diabetes counseling and even acupuncture, are provided free of charge. Local hospitals and specialists chip in with free testing, x-rays, and care. Since the clinic opened in 2004, it has exceeded 20,000 patient visits and has a current patient load of about 3000 people.

The clinic has saved lives, said Dr. Mandel. He spoke about life-threatening conditions the clinic detected in people walking in with unrelated complaints. The most dramatic was a woman in her 30s who was found to need open-heart surgery, which VIM arranged to be performed pro bono. Through basic screening tests, they also caught 2 cases of active tuberculosis and several cancers.

“Ninety percent of our patients are in the workforce and these are people who are really stuck for various reasons — and that really gets to me,” he said.

The health and future of the clinic have become his life’s mission, and he is always on the lookout for volunteers to add to the clinic staff so that the clinic can see more patients. Asked if he still weaves, Dr. Mandel laughs, “I wish I could still weave, but I have no time.”

Arthur Peisner, chairman of the VIM board, spoke about the tremendous contribution of time and energy Dr. Mandel has made to VIM, as well as his passion for the mission of VIM and the well-being of its patients. The connections Dr. Mandel has been able to make throughout the community have been invaluable for keeping its doors open, he said.

“He is the driving force,” Peisner said.

Leslie McGuire, MSW

Director, U.S. Partnerships

Mar 15, 2013