BJVIM Executive Director Pam Toney, left, with her husband, Dennis Toney, and Mary Jane Richardson, seated, work outside the BJVIM offices during an outdoor COVID-19 clinic. COURTESY BJVIM

“Throughout the whole of my life I have learned and relearned that it is only in service to others that we find and begin to understand ourselves.” – Dr. Jack McConnell, Founder of Volunteers In Medicine.

For the past decade, dozens of volunteers have given of their time each week in order for Bluffton Jasper Volunteers In Medicine to fulfill its mission of caring for those in our Lowcountry community without medical insurance and access to quality health care.

In our fast-paced world, the fact that so many community members would take the time to care for their “neighbor” is almost unbelievable. A miracle, some might even say.

Well, if you are doubting that miracles still happen, all you have to do is encounter one of these individuals to witness the caring, compassionate care given by these selfless volunteers.

From the clinic’s inception in 2011, it has been the goal of the BJVIM board, staff, and volunteers to care for their patients with respect and dignity. Looking back over the past 10 years of patient care, BJVIM has been able to achieve its goal and make plans for future growth with help from the community, staff, donors and volunteers who take the time to care for their neighbor.

How it all started

Volunteers in Medicine (VIM) began just across the bridge in Hilton Head, by Dr. Jack McConnell, a retired physician who lived on the island. In 1992, one out of three people who lived on Hilton Head Island had no access to healthcare.

At the same time, several retired medical personnel began expressing an interest in finding a way to continue practicing their profession on a voluntary, part-time basis to help those without access to healthcare.

After much work, the first clinic opened on the island in 1993.

In 2010, a group of concerned citizens recognized the need for a free clinic that would serve the town of Bluffton and Jasper County. A group of volunteers, headed by Joe Michalcewicz and Rev. Renty Kitty, began meeting with others to explore this possibility.

The national Volunteers in Medicine office was contacted and soon plans were underway with the help of many in the community. The Community Foundation of the Lowcountry, the South Carolina Free Clinic Association, BlueCross/ BlueShield Foundation of South Carolina and the Bluffton Rotary were instrumental in providing the oversight, grants, and donations to begin the clinic. And BJVIM was created.

On the day of dedication Dr. Jack McConnell, the founder of Volunteers in Medicine, joined state and local dignitaries to cut the ribbon on the opening of the Bluffton Jasper Volunteers in Medicine clinic.

The staff and volunteers have grown each year and with that growth the services BJVIM provides have also increased. When the Bluffton clinic opened in a small building on Bluffton Road in September 2011, they had just two primary care physicians, two nurses and a small group of caring volunteers.

How it’s going

Ten years after the ribbon cutting, BJVIM now operates with 13 volunteer physicians, 22 volunteer nurses and more than 40 administrative volunteers along with a paid staff of eight. It takes 67 medical and nonmedical volunteers to operate the two clinics weekly – in Bluffton and in Ridgeland. Pam Toney serves as executive director.

Original long-range plans for the clinic included adding additional medical services, opening a pharmacy, providing mental health services, offering patient education, opening a satellite office in Ridgeland and opening a dental clinic. With the help of more than 60 community and national grants along with community donations, BJVIM has been able to meet all of these goals over the past decade.

After a few years of operation, the board of directors realized that about one-third of the patients who visited the Bluffton-Jasper Volunteers in Medicine clinic in Bluffton were Jasper County residents. Recognizing the need for a facility closer to home for their patients, plans began to open a Ridgeland clinic. And in 2016, the ribbon was cut on the facility at 11332 N. Jacob Smart Blvd. to serve Jasper County residents.

With the organization growing and serving more and more patients each year, the need for additional space at the Bluffton clinic eventually arose. In 2018, with help once again from the Community Foundation of the Lowcountry, Palmetto State Bank, and Palmetto Electric Trust, BJVIM purchased the building at 29 Plantation Park Drive in Bluffton.

In the past 10 years, BJVIM has provided more than 55,000 patient visits, referred more than 1,000 patients for specialties appointments, provided almost $10 million worth of medications and provided care to more than 5,000 individuals.

Today, medical services offered by BJVIM include not only primary care but also cardiology, gynecology, endocrinology, podiatry, mental health, optometry, and referrals to specialists in gastroenterology, orthopedics, acute care, surgery, and ophthalmology.

Serving thy neighbor

“When I am at the clinic, I forget the challenges in own my life,” said volunteer Martha Girardi of her experience volunteering at BJVIM. “Instead, I ask myself how I might make the life of even one of our patients a little bit easier. It is cliché to say that I get more from my volunteer time than I give. Nevertheless, it is true.”

Girardi says she constantly witnesses gratitude, generosity and hope through the people she serves – whether it is the young woman who pulls a $5 bill from her purse and asks where the donation box is located, or the man who says, while choking back tears, that the people in the clinic quite literally saved his life. It reminds her each time why she serves.

“A volunteer doesn’t have to have medical experience,” Toney said. “We just need to have people who truly believe in our mission.”

Dr. James O’Malley was among the numerous volunteers who got BJVIM off the ground, saw some of its first patients and for a brief time, served as the clinic’s first Medical Director. Since then, the clinic has grown in size and scope though its mission remains the same.

“Knowing we are obliged to share our gifts and talents, our many volunteers and staff do so gratefully and with great satisfaction,” said Dr. O’Malley.

A patient named Gloria tells the story of how BJVIM saved her sight. After suffering from cataracts and complications from diabetes, Gloria came to BJVIM for eye surgery because she had no insurance.

“They really took care of me,” she said. “I would be blind because I couldn’t afford to pay for what I needed.”

And beyond saving her vision, Gloria was grateful for the kind, compassionate staff as well. “They care about people … everybody,” she said. “And I really appreciate that.”

BJVIM does not charge for any medical services, but relies on the generosity of the Greater Bluffton and Jasper County communities to meet the clinic’s monetary needs. This help comes in the form of individual donations, support from two annual fundraisers, as well as local, state and national grants. Many local organizations, businesses and community groups also generously support BJVIM each year.

“The community support from Greater Bluffton and Jasper County is the reason we have been able to expand services and succeed over the past 10 years,” said Toney.

The Covid -19 Pandemic impacted the lives of everyone at the clinic and shaped the services delivered at BJVIM. From the closing of the clinic for in person visits to losing many of their volunteers, BJVIM had to reorganize, re-think and re-deliver quality care to their patients.

In what proved to be its most challenging year, BJVIM continued to make an impact on the Lowcountry’s most vulnerable population in 2020. More than 5,000 medical visits were completed at the clinics. And BJVIM volunteers helped local hospitals to screen more than 1,500 patients for COVID-19.

Amidst the crisis, there was still progress. BJVIM was able to add a monthly diabetic clinic and now offers telemedicine appointments for their patients. And in 2021, BJVIM established the Sheryl & William Magro Dental Clinic, made possible by the Magros’ generous donation and through national and community grants. BJVIM also collaborated with the former Smile Mobile to open the clinic on the first Saturday of each month for free dental care to the underserved in Beaufort County.

“As we celebrate our first 10 years of this much-needed care, we can give thanks to our staff and volunteers for the exceptional outpouring of care they provide our patients,” says G. Thomas Upshaw, chair of the board of directors of BJVIM. “Thanks to their dedication, BJVIM was able to continue our work even during the trying times of the pandemic.”

Also in 2021, an anonymous donor gave BJVIM a gift of $85,000 for the expansion of the Ridgeland Clinic. With this donation, the clinic has been able to hire a nurse and a receptionist/translator. The clinic was also able to upgrade the phone system, enhance the web page and purchase a telemedicine cart with peripherals for the telemedicine program.

In collaboration with the Pregnancy Center of the Lowcountry, which occupies one of the clinic’s exam rooms, the Ridgeland clinic is now open four days a week delivering services in general medicine, cardiology, gynecology, podiatry, and optometry.

Thanks to the generous support of the community and the dedicated volunteers and staff of BJVIM, the future is bright and BJVIM will continue to work hard for years to come to meet this vital need in our community.