Giving back by helping out
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Giving back by helping out

The Bergen Volunteer Medical Initiative: A medical mitzvah

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Dr. Sam Cassell, left, Janet Finke, Cedie Kupfer, and Edythe Kornfeld

The Hackensack facility – which provides free medical care to low-income working people without health insurance – was only a dream some five years ago, when retired physician Dr. Sam Cassell of Franklin Lakes began to recruit volunteers to organize, staff, and administer the project.

Cassell, who retired in 2001 after 36 years with a medical practice in Fair Lawn, “was very persuasive,” said Janet Finke, who serves on the group’s board of trustees and was one of its founding members. “He spoke to everyone he knew.”

A former president and current board member of Jewish Family Service of North Jersey, Finke said Cassell “collected a lot of talented people to build the organization. People came out of the woodwork” to volunteer.

While there was little problem finding people to staff the facility, it took longer to find an appropriate place to house it. “Some people didn’t want us in their area,” said Finke, explaining that the Hackensack location “is in an existing building of an existing agency. They had the space available and they had no direct medical service in their portfolio. We deliberately chose the site because it’s a block from the bus station,” she said. “It’s as easy to get to as anything in the county.”

The center, which opened the third week in November, not only has onsite doctors and nurses but offers “a large number of physicians who have volunteered to take referrals in their offices,” said Finke. In addition to primary care and pediatric doctors, BVMI has a dentist who does patient screenings. Local hospitals have agreed to do X-rays and other tests on BVMI patients and to handle some of the patients through their charity programs.

According to Finke, BVMI clients must meet certain income requirements, earning between 100 and 200 percent of the current federal poverty level income and having no other form of health insurance.

Marcia Levy, who does social action programming for the National Council of Jewish Women, said the agendas of her organization and BVMI “coincide, because so many of the clients [served by NCJW] would be eligible.”

The group’s Bergen section has adopted BVMI as one of its community programs, and Levy has a seat on the medical group’s board.

“A lot of people in Bergen County will need these services,” said Levy. “The primary care part of it is so much better than an emergency room,” the only option previously available to families without health care insurance.

Also taking up the cause of BVMI is Barnert Temple, where Finke is a past sisterhood president and current board member. Cassell is also a member.

Ron Mintz, who coordinates the shul’s Mitzvah Mall, said the Franklin Lakes synagogue has invited BVMI to set up a booth at the annual event, together with other small charities.

“We pick the smaller [charities] where the money will have a greater impact,” said Mintz, adding that religious school students are assigned charities to investigate, later sharing their findings with others.

The volunteers

When pediatrician Herbert Cole took up Sam Cassell’s invitation to attend a planning meeting for a new medical initiative, “I didn’t realize what I was getting into. I thought I would work there as a volunteer when it opened,” said the Wayne resident. Instead, “I was involved in getting it off the ground.”

As it happened, the opening of the center dovetailed with Cole’s plans to leave his private practice.

He began his volunteer service there twice a week. However, he said, “The state of New Jersey has a wonderful program called CHIP that takes care of children who can’t afford medical care.” As a result, he has had only a few pediatric patients at BVMI, though, he said, he expects that number to increase.

With a team of three pediatricians and the assistance of several nurses, Cole heads the facility’s small pediatric group. Patient immunizations will be provided by the state, he said, noting that BVMI does not keep medicine on premises.

Cole said he’s “always done things like this. I’ve been involved in the community and on the Y board and hospital boards for years.”

“I grew up with volunteerism,” he said. “It was part of your duties when you belonged to a hospital staff to work in a clinic two and a half days a week. We saw indigent people for free. It’s how we were trained.” But, he said, “things changed, and the generation now doesn’t think of things that way.”

Cole said working with BVMI is “a great thing to do – to help people, that’s what I wanted to do. I’ve always felt that I’ve been very fortunate and life has treated me well. Everybody should have an obligation to give back to those who don’t have the opportunities you do.”

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Oradell resident Cecile Kupfer, a registered nurse, called Cassell some five years ago when he first announced his dream of opening a clinic.

“I started attending meetings,” she said. “Less than 10 people were involved at the time. As it developed, I was asked to coordinate volunteer nurses.”

That involved not only finding but credentialing each volunteer nurse, entailing “a certain amount of paperwork.” For example, she said, “every nurse has to have malpractice insurance, or we need to apply to the federal government” for it.

Kupfer is also responsible for ordering supplies. Until recently, when she brought on an assistant, she was working throughout each shift, “plus meetings and orienting nurses.”

BVMI calls upon some 20 nurses. Some work once a month, some once a week, and some several times a month.

“The majority are practicing RNs and work full- or part-time,” said Kupfer. Some are retired, “but all feel its worth giving their time to help people.” The group also includes school nurses, some of whom have had critical-care experience, as well as nurses who have held administrative positions.

Kupfer said she became a nurse in her 30s. At that point, she noted, “every penny was counted.” She remembers that “if you were employed, you got medical insurance. If we were at that stage at this time, when employers don’t necessarily do that, I can’t imagine” what it would be like. “So I guess that’s why it drew me. I can certainly relate to this.”

She pointed out that Quest is doing free lab work for the group and arrangements have been made with ShopRite, Walmart, and Target to obtain low-cost generic medication. In addition, BVMI has received some free supplies from Becton, Dickinson.

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Tenafly resident Edythe Kornfeld – deputy facility director responsible for office staff, registration, eligibility, and appointments – is herself a nurse, “though I haven’t practiced in many years.”

With a master’s degree in public health administration, Kornfeld, formerly senior vice president for Presbyterian Hospital’s ambulatory services division, also served as director of nurses for outpatient services and consulted with hospitals and private groups on ambulatory care.

“I think it is an enormously worthwhile cause,” she said of BVMI, adding that, with her background, “I wanted to spend my time doing something meaningful.”

Kornfeld said the center – where she spends 16 to 20 hours each week – has at least 20 doctors who come in regularly (once a week or so) to see patients, some eight nurse practitioners, and 20 nurses. In addition, “many specialists in practice have said they will see our patients in their offices on a referral basis at no charge.”

BVMI also has 10 volunteers, “trained and committed,” doing intake procedures. Most of the volunteers are women, and most from Bergen County, although there are two physicians from Passaic County.

Kornfeld said in the short time the facility has been open, two patients stand out, “both of whom came in distressed-looking.”

“Both were treated and returned for follow-up visits,” she said. “Now they look like new people, smiling and happy, feeling better. What would have happened [without us] is that they would have gotten really sick and gone to the emergency room.”

The Bergen Volunteer Medical Initiative is at 241 Moore St. in Hackensack. Patients are seen on Tuesdays and Thursdays, by appointment only. Eligibility and intake matters are handled on Mondays and Wednesdays. For information, visit www.bvmi.org or call (201) 342-2478.

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