Care and Concern Free Health Clinic in Pittston celebrates tenth anniversary

By Tony Callaio - For Sunday Dispatch

PITTSTON — What started as a casual discussion about health care around the parish dining room table at St. John the Evangelist Church in Pittston eventually turned out to be one of the most successful non-profit agencies, not only in Pittston but possibly in all of northeast PA.

The Care and Concern Free Health Clinic, a division of the Care and Concern Ministries of St. John the Evangelist Church, Williams Street, Pittston, is celebrating 10 years of operation this week.

When the discussion of health care was brought up, Ann Cocco, then an employee at the PA Welfare office, felt there was the need for a free clinic. A clinic was always a dream of Ann’s and everyone at the table agreed.

“Before you knew it, Ann had a committee; we had plans in action and it was that kind of a thing,” said Gloria Blandina, clinic director. “She knew that people who use the welfare system also didn’t have insurance, that it was critical for most to get help. It was just a bunch of people sitting around a table and that’s how things happen.”

The first issue was to find a location for the clinic. Pittston City was scoured in search for the proper space needed.

“We walked up and down the streets of Pittston and we realized there wasn’t adequate space anywhere.” Blandina said.

Seton Catholic School had closed about that time and the Diocese of Scranton released the school building to St. John the Evangelist Church pastor Msgr. John Bendik, who suggested the clinic be housed in a section of the school.

Initially, the clinic received a state grant specifically set up for the clinic for the first five years and that money was used for infrastructure. According to Blandina, the school was in need of repair before the clinic was to open and the grant money was used for a new furnace, lighting and carpet, along with computer equipment.

“Many of the desks, tables and chairs were donated,” said Blandina. “We wanted it to be clean and comfortable and to feel like it were their own home.”

Volunteer workers from Blue Cross, Junior League and the Leadership groups helped with painting and cleaning to get the building ready.

“The Leadership group asked if I had a secret wish list and I told them I wanted a MARTI system,” Blandina said. The MARTI system is an audio/visual aid used for translation. If a patient did not speak English, the MARTI system would be used to contact an interpreter so the attending physician or nurse could make a proper diagnosis from the patient. Leadership and Geisinger Hospital joined forces to donate the MARTI system to the clinic.

One stipulation in setting up the clinic was that it would operate on an all-volunteer system. Volunteers needed included doctors, nurses, pharmacists, podiatrists, dentists, social workers and lay people.

“Right now, we are looking for general practice doctors and nurses to volunteer their time,” Blandina said.

Blandina credits Cocco for wanting to fulfill her dream but she also credits Dr. John Callahan for coming to the forefront in volunteering his time. Throughout the years, Dr. Callahan has been the most consistent physician in volunteering. He recently stepped down for health reasons but Blandina is very grateful for his service.

Blandina also recognized Dr. Lewis Druffner who volunteered his time to the clinic once he retired from private practice.

Since the clinic’s doors opened, nearly 4,000 patients have walked through them, totaling nearly 14,000 visits.

Blandina estimates that 4,000 visits to a hospital emergency room would cost almost $3,900,000.

Blandina also estimated the salary cost saved because of the all-volunteer corp. “If we had to pay everyone, it would have cost us over $3,940,000 in the 10 years, she said.”

The majority of patients seen in the clinic have little or no insurance, but people covered under the Affordable Care Act have also taken advantage of the free clinic.

“Many of those people could not meet the yearly deductible and couldn’t afford conventional care so they came here,” Blandina said.

One such patient is Nick Vino, of Wilkes-Barre. Because of the high deduction on his health insurance, Vino could not afford to buy the $400 insulin medication he requires. Because of diabetes, Vino had his right leg amputated below the knee and could have been in danger of losing the rest of his leg, and possibly his life, if he did not receive the insulin.

He went to the Free Clinic where he got the insulin he needed.

“This place is the best place I’ve ever been to,” Vino said. “I’ve been to a whole bunch of other ones (clinics) down in Wilkes-Barre and I even called the company where the product was made and they didn’t even help me. This was the last place I came to and they helped me.”

Shawanna Tart, pf West Pittston, is a nursing student at Marywood University and a volunteer at the clinic. She and her family have had to use the clinic in time of need. Last week, she brought her daughter Rosalind who was not feeling well.

“The clinic helps a lot and they give you connections and resources if you need help with things,” Tart said. “They have people that come in and help you get in touch with resources and social workers and programs.”

Services provided over the 10 years have included assisting over 2,000 patients with free medication, coordinating and paying for lab tests and x-rays, offering educational programs for chronic diseases, partneingd with Misericordia and Wilkes Universities by hosting pharmacy and nursing interns, assisting over 2,000 people with Public Assistance needs, providing podiatry and dental care, offering nutritional counseling and providing counseling care by licensed social workers.

Out of the Care and Concern Ministries with St. John the Evangelist Church, a total of five agencies have been created – the Care and Concern Free Health Clinic, Food Pantry, Pediatric Clinic, Kids Closet and the Book and Toy Corner.

The Care and Concern Free Health Clinic’s hours of operations are Wednesday evenings with registrations beginning at 5:30 p.m.

Blandina went on to say how grateful she is to be a part of wonderful group of volunteers, clergy, doctors, and nurses and to outside agencies that have helped keep the clinic not only running, but operating in the black all 10 years of its existence.

As for Blandina, she will stay on as long as she’s capable or until she can, one day, find a suitable successor who will assure the clinic can uphold its standards and provide free health care to those in need well into the future.

Care and Concern Free Health Clinic helps those in need

By Tony Callaio

For Sunday Dispatch

Reach the Sunday Dispatch newsroom at 570-704-3982 or by email at sd@psdispatch.com.

Reach the Sunday Dispatch newsroom at 570-704-3982 or by email at sd@psdispatch.com.