Hilton Head Doctor Maintains Free Clinic

Hometown Heroes, People
on June 30, 2002

Jack McConnell is an inspiration to parents who hope the lessons they teach their children are remembered later in life.

The retired doctor was motivated by the values his parents instilled in him and his seven siblings to begin a free health clinic that now serves 16,000 patients a year on Hilton Head Island, S.C. (pop. 33,862).

“I had expected a fairly routine retirement, but it didn’t quite work out that way,” says the 70-something McConnell, chuckling at the irony of his 60-hour, unpaid workweeks.

Before retiring to this resort community, McConnell worked on prestigious projects for such research laboratories as McNeil Consumer Healthcare and Johnson & Johnson. One of his many career highlights included directing the development of Tylenol tablets. After achieving so much, he finally planned to relax and play golf.

“My wife and I built a nice house in one of the nicer developments, but when we drove out the back gate, I discovered we were in poverty,” McConnell recalls.

To honor his father—a preacher who used his resources to put his children through college and never splurged on a car—McConnell has always picked up hitchhikers. He continued the practice on the island, and to make conversation, he asked riders about their health care.

“The first eight people I picked up (in Hilton Head) said they didn’t get any health care,” McConnell says. “I thought, ‘My goodness. This seems to be a serious trend.’”

On further investigation, McConnell determined that one out of three people living or working on the island could not afford health care. Local businesses told him they desperately needed a free health clinic for their employees.

McConnell thought other retired health care workers on the island might help. He approached them and said, “Why don’t we just get together and take care of this?”

He found 13 doctors and nurses willing to participate under a state law that allows retired practitioners to volunteer their services under the supervision of a licensed doctor. In 1994, with funds raised by local citizens through private donations, Volunteers in Medicine (VIM) built a 7,000-square-foot facility with six examining rooms as well as space for eye, chiropractic, dental, and mental health services. Today, the clinic operates with seven paid employees and more than 300 volunteers.

“It’s really terrific. Dr. McConnell is a miracle-worker,” says Bill Cunningham, who worked for Kraft Foods in Latin America for 25 years and now donates his services as a Spanish-language translator for the clinic. “I really didn’t plan for my retirement properly. All of us, I think, need something more (than golf, tennis, and travel.) By translating, I really feel I help people. This is the most fun I’ve ever had.”

Patients say the clinic provides better health care than they have received—and paid for—in the past.

“(The doctors) take more time with you,” says island native Elizabeth Taylor. “There couldn’t be a better thing to come here than Volunteers in Medicine.”

McConnell says VIM doesn’t view clients as just patients or illnesses. “We perceive them as friends and neighbors that don’t feel well and are coming to see if we can help them. It’s such a joy to everybody.”

McConnell’s parents would be especially pleased. Every day they asked their children, “And what did you do for someone today?” It’s a question McConnell continues to answer decades later.

“I have the best retirement anyone in the world could have: giving yourself away in service to others,” he says. “People say, ‘Jack, why don’t you play more golf with us?’ And I tell them, ‘When I come off the golf course, I’m always diminished a bit, and when I come out of the clinic, I’m elevated and feel good about myself and my life. Now, tell me which one you’d choose?’ One is fun, the other joy. They’re both good, but I’d certainly not choose fun over joy.”