One morning in 1991, Jack McConnell, retired physician and medical researcher, saw a man walking along the roadside in the rain and offered him a ride. When the man said he was looking for work, McConnell helped him find a job. In the course of events, he also discovered the man’s wife had a bad heart, diabetes, and failing eyesight, and no one in the family had insurance. Realizing that some 10,000 people who lived or worked on Hilton Head Island, South Carolina were in the same position, McConnell resolved to do something about it.
His vision of a free health clinic staffed by retired volunteer medical professionals began to take shape. Financed by private donations and corporate support, Volunteers in Medicine opened a facility in 1994 with 55 physicians, 83 other health professionals and more than 100 lay workers. In the first year, the clinic provided free medical and dental care to 5,000 patients.
McConnell’s impulse to respond to people’s needs has its roots in his Depression-era boyhood as the son of a Methodist minister in West Virginia coal country. While the McConnell family could not afford a car, they did manage to provide college educations to seven children. The parents helped the oldest sister and as soon as she was financially able, she contributed to the next sibling’s education and so on down the line.
The impact of McConnell’s contributions to innovations in medicine has been pervasive. While serving as corporate director of advanced technology for Johnson & Johnson, his list of contributions to medical milestones included primary leadership roles in the development of an early version of the polio vaccine, the Tuberculosis Tine Test, Tylenol in pill form, and the first commercial MRI system used in the United States. He also co-authored the U.S. Senate bill authorizing the human genome project and is a founding trustee of the Institute for Genomic Research.
When questioned about what gives him the most satisfaction, McConnell quickly says it’s his family. After family, he says it’s Volunteers in Medicine. The success of his vision has inspired 17 similar clinics across the country and several more VIM models are in the planning states. Volunteers in Medicine is not just about health care. It is, in McConnell’s words, about “transforming our town into a community where everyone not only cares for but cares about everyone else.”
Dr. McConnell and his wife continue to reside in Hilton Head, and Volunteers in Medicine continues to grow with 95 clinics across the country. McConnell has been honored by the state of South Carolina with the Order of the Palmetto, the state’s highest civilian award; AARP for his outstanding dedication in providing quality health care for the uninsured; and the University of South Carolina Beaufort with an honorary degree. Moreover, the American Medical Association annually recognizes the work of senior physicians who provide treatment to U.S. patients who lack access to health care with the Jack B. McDonnell, MD Award for Excellence in Volunteerism.