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Expanding Suncoast clinic meeting growing medical needs

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image The newly expanded Suncoast Community Health Center. Melody Jameson Photo

"While the clinic’s mission is to help with health needs of the under- and non-insured, the facility’s strong and enduring bond with the surrounding community brings others to its doors..."


RUSKIN – From a trailer with a leaky roof, collapsing walls and a reluctant air conditioner to a multi-specialty, ultra-modern medical and dental clinic in 22,000-square-feet of logistically designed space – this is the history of the Suncoast Community Health Center here.

The transition has taken place over 34 years, driven by the dedication of early volunteers, fueled by the foresight of several CEOs, supported by the devotion of medical and administrative staff, encouraged by the loyalty of patients and, most recently, boosted by a $3.7 million federal grant made possible by stimulus money earmarked in 2008.

Saturday they commemorated it all with a re-dedication of the clinic on 14th Avenue S.E. and its services to the area’s uninsured or under-insured families who might have very few options without it. Elected officials spoke, visitors toured the airy, enlarged building, the last three CEOs beamed and all present enjoyed an outdoor barbecue.

The trailer in which the first clinic for migrant workers opened during 1977 is long gone and the operation that delivers medical services on a daily basis to all comers for fees based on income has undergone several metamorphoses over the decades. A year ago it was serving its clientele in a cramped 14,000 square foot facility showing age. Today it is expanded by another 8,000 square feet, renovated with beautiful tiling in soothing neutral tones, fresh furnishings and new equipment.

And that means more services for more patients, faster and more efficiently delivered, in a more pleasant environment, says Betsy Martinez, the clinic’s lead office manager. For example, there now are 15 exam rooms rather than five and seven different waiting areas rather than a single large one collecting all types of patients.

There is an emergency medical department to handle cases that cannot wait; when minutes are critical.

There is a section devoted entirely to obstetrics and gynecology as well as one focused solely on pediatrics. The medical roster also includes family practice and internal medicine.

There’s a full-service dental clinic where teeth in any condition can be taken care of, from fillings and extractions to root canals and crowns. Denture services also are available.

Then, there’s the roomy laboratory performing a range of analyses, a pharmacy with cutting edge technology, close to the updated reception area, with its central desk, plus several admissions stations.

Behind the scenes there’s new infrastructure, including air conditioning, plumbing and electrical wiring, an intercom system, digitized medical records, plus a mail distribution center which handles all incoming and outgoing for the entire Suncoast network that now includes facilities in Plant City, Dover, Brandon as well as the recently-acquired Joyce Ely clinic, also in Ruskin.

Also beyond what can be seen, points out Maria Flores, nursing supervisor, are the demonstrations of staff planning which trumped the original interior design. For instance, in pediatrics, a sick child waiting area with plenty of windows to help overcome feelings of isolation was added at staff insistence. “I’ve been in nursing 30 years,” Flores says with s smile, “I know how important it is to avoid spreading germs between sick and well kids. There were a few disagreements, but we knew what we needed.”

Another innovation was added in the dental clinic where X-ray equipment is tucked into wall cabinets between examination rooms. A technician on either side of the wall can access the extending arm of the X-ray machine by opening the wall cabinet on her side.

While the clinic’s mission is to help with health needs of the under- and non-insured, the facility’s strong and enduring bond with the surrounding community brings others to its doors, says Bradley Herremans, current CEO. He remembers a 17-year-old girl, pregnant and without resources, who became first a client and then a committed friend. Today, that frightened teen-ager is grown, a banking executive and an active supporter of clinic programs. Her baby currently is a student at the University of South Florida. “She tells us now,” Herremans relates.” ‘ Suncoast was there when I needed it.’ ”

In the same vein, Flores recalls the patient who drove from Orlando with a rupturing aortic aneurysm, reaching the clinic just in time. “She knew the doctors here and she wanted to be cared for only by them,” the nursing supervisor says. “And yes, we saved her life,” she adds. Hers has not been the only life saved at the clinic, either, Flores notes.

Another testimony to the clinic’s place in the community is the many former patients who now are employees among the 75 who work in the Ruskin facility, Herremans says.

The network-wide staff numbers 270 at present, serving the health needs of a patient base of about 35,000, the CEO notes. Most staff members are bi-lingual, speaking either the Spanish of Mexico, Cuba and South America, or French and Creole.

The most basic difference between a hospital and the clinic, Herremans emphasizes, “ is we deliver primary care,” rather than highly specialized medical services. The clinic also “turns no one away.”

The contemporary Suncoast Community Health Clinic that Martinez now describes as “state of the art” is open from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Mondays, Wednesdays, Thursdays and Fridays. Tuesday hours are 10 a.m. to 7 p.m.

Copyright 2011 Melody Jameson

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