Early in his work life, Jerry Gordon, EdD, owned five shoe stores. Despite his success, "I became kinda depressed about the whole thing," he recalls. He wanted more meaning out of life, to serve others. At first, he answered the call by teaching in New Jersey high schools. Then, in 1978, at age 57, he earned his doctoral degree in psychology from Temple University. He taught and held a private practice until 1991, when he and his wife Beverly retired to Florida.
Today, Gordon, 70, is still following his conscience and his bliss by providing psychological services to poor, uninsured workers at a free medical clinic in Stuart, Fla., that's staffed almost entirely by retired health-care professionals.
"I get a lot of joy out of doing this work," says Gordon, an animated, jovial man. "My patients"--mostly young and middle-aged service workers--"all walk away with the feeling that they've been listened to."
The clinic, called Volunteers in Medicine Inc., is one of about 20 independent but like-minded clinics across the country, the first of which started in Hilton Head, S.C., in 1992. The centers marry the needs of people living below the poverty line who can't afford medical insurance and retired health-care professionals who want to find meaning in their golden years.
Gordon is the only psychologist on a staff of 31 physicians, 40 nurses, and a host of nurse practitioners, physician assistants and clerical workers. "There are so many people with medical conditions who need someone to talk to about the psychological impact of their problems," says Howard Voss, MD, one of the clinic's volunteer medical directors. "Jerry's cheerful affect and his willingness to see these patients make him a wonderful asset."
The clinic offers every conceivable medical specialty, from internal medicine to neurology to otolaryngology, adds Mary Fields, the clinic's executive director. And because the volunteers aren't rushed as they often were during their regular careers, they spend "quality time" with patients, giving them the kind of care all Americans would like to receive but often don't, she says. "This is not your stereotypical free clinic," says Fields.
He spends every Tuesday at the clinic, but makes himself available if he's needed at other times, too. Mostly his patients struggle with issues of daily living: how to make ends meet, for instance, or how to juggle work and caretaking responsibilities. Not surprisingly, their psychological diagnoses tend to be depression and anxiety, he says. (Patients with more serious disorders, such as schizophrenia, are referred out.)
While Gordon is too modest to admit it, "the patients love him," says Fields. "I know that when they leave his office, they really want to come back."
Ironically, Gordon's work at the clinic is the first time he's worked in a medical setting with a team of colleagues--and he loves it, he says. Not only can he practice his craft and help people feel better, but he's surrounded by colleagues who are bright, interesting and caring.
"I've been extremely warmly accepted by everyone on the staff," says Gordon. "There's no such thing as, 'You're not a real doctor.' Here, we're all health-care professionals."
The staff is, in fact, "like one big family," he says: They laugh a lot together and bombard each other with talk about kids and grandkids (Gordon has a lot to brag about: He has four children and 12 grandchildren, with a 13th on the way).
The clinic may be more of a gift to him than to his patients, Gordon remarks. "I feel like I came alive with this clinic," he says. "When I leave here at the end of the day, I'm reluctant to go."Tori DeAngelis is a writer in Syracuse, N.Y.