It is with great sadness that Volunteers in Medicine Clinic-Hilton Head Island announces the passing of its beloved founder, Dr. Jack B. McConnell, MD at the age of 93. Dr. Jack, as he was affectionately known, was a nationally recognized scientist and business executive in the health care field prior to hatching the idea for the VIM clinic.
He spearheaded the founding of the free clinic on Hilton Head Island a quarter of a century ago, and the clinic stands as the model for nearly 90 clinics under the VIM name across the country. Now in its 25th year, volunteer physicians and nurses see upwards of 28,000 patient visits annually on Northridge Drive on Hilton Head Island.
“Dr. Jack was a shining example of how one person CAN change the world,” said Dr. Raymond Cox, Executive Director of the Volunteers in Medicine-Hilton Head Island Clinic. “His work in developing the VIM Clinic on Hilton Head Island and the subsequent 88 clinics based on his idea have made a huge difference in the lives of patients who would otherwise not have access to care.”
The seeds for the idea of the clinic came from a chance encounter Dr. Jack had one stormy day on Hilton Head, when he stopped to offer a ride to a native islander walking in the rain. Dr. Jack found out that James was on his way to look for work, and dropped him off at a construction site. During the drive to the site, Dr. Jack and James discussed whether James and his family had access to medical care. He learned that James, his pregnant wife and two children, had no healthcare at all. This resulted in an epiphany for Dr. Jack. Realizing that so many were going without, he made it his mission to find a way to give them access to quality healthcare.
In fact, the opening line of the preface of a book he wrote about the founding of the clinic simply says this. “After food and shelter there is no more pressing need than access to healthcare.” He was able to see the need and also understood that Hilton Head was a perfect location for a clinic like Volunteers in Medicine. Because of the area’s prominent tourism industry, the area’s underserved population is significant.
He also foresaw that Hilton Head was a haven for prominent medical professional retirees, such as himself, who were still interested in practicing medicine and seeing patients on a limited basis without all the hassles of running their own practice. He successfully lobbied the South Carolina legislature to enact laws allowing volunteer physicians to practice at the clinic without carrying their own malpractice insurance. Removing that impediment allows the doctors and nurses at VIM to focus all their energies on patient care.
Jim Collett, the chairman of the clinic’s board of directors, put Dr. Jack’s community-wide impact in perspective. “His commitment to serve others has inspired a great many people on our Island to do things they never imagined,” he said. “Jack did so much to open our eyes to see the need around us. What an incredible legacy.”
“He was truly a good friend and an advocate for thousands of folks who were without access to healthcare in our country. I am so glad that our community was in his life’s path,” adds longtime islander and VIM Board member Morris Campbell.
Prominent local CPA Kirk Glenn was one of the early pioneers of the clinic. He said Dr. Jack used the force of his personality to help make the clinic what it is today and related a story about McConnell’s efforts to find the clinic a home.
“One day he came in and said ‘We’re going to build a building,’” Glenn said. “I told him we couldn’t afford a mortgage let alone build a building. He said he was going to get somebody to donate the building. And he did.”
Dr. Jack was born in West Virginia. Daily, he would sit at the dinner table with his siblings and parents. And each night, like clockwork, his father, who was a minister, would ask the family, “What have you done for somebody today?” He would continually ask himself that question throughout his life and it helped form the foundation of VIM’s mission. The question stands today as a cornerstone of what is accomplished daily at the clinic.
Dr. Jack studied medicine at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville and his post-graduate training in pediatrics at Baylor University in Houston, Texas. He never practiced medicine after contracting tuberculosis during his training but went on to an incredibly distinguished career in medical development and research.
His many accomplishments include, but are not limited to, directing the development of the TB Tine Test, used in the detection of tuberculosis, participating in the early stages of the development of the polio vaccine, directing the program that developed Tylenol tablets, creating and directing the program for the first commercial MRI System in the United States, as well as co-Founding of the Institute of Genomic Research. His professional resume includes stints with Lederle Laboratories, McNeil Laboratories and Johnson & Johnson. The individual awards and honors he has received are too numerous to mention.
Because of Dr. Jack’s vision, hundreds of thousands of people who were previously without a regular source of care have been treated. Tens of thousands of volunteers have experienced the joy of serving.
Dr. Jack is survived by his loving wife Mary Ellen, whom he met while working as Director of Clinical Research at Lederle. They have two sons, Steven and Page, one daughter, Katie, and seven grandchildren.
In the words of Dr. Jack, “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. Until everyone is healthy and whole, none of us can obtain health and wholeness.” Help us to continue doing the work that started as a dream in Dr. Jack’s heart nearly 25 years ago.