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A doctor for those with none

ERNEST HOOPER
Published July 4, 2003

Dr. Steven Parks has spent nearly 20 years practicing family medicine, but he is best known as the man who spearheaded the creation of the Brandon Outreach Clinic in 1987. Operating solely on private funds, the clinic serves people who don't have insurance.

Parks was lauded in January as the Brandon Chamber of Commerce's Key Citizen of the year for his work at the clinic.

Over shepherd's pie and potato skins at O'Briens Irish Pub, we talked about the clinic, the challenges of being a doctor and the "opiate of medicine."

Pull up a chair and join us.

ERNEST: One of the reasons I asked you to join me is because you have been recommended by several people. You have a lot of admirers in the community.

PARKS: I don't like the term admirers at all. Nothing I do - I don't do it for admiration. I do it simply because that's the way I want to do things. I would never ever do anything solely for the purpose of elevating my reputation. I don't do the outreach clinic for any other reason than it's the right thing to do. I never thought it would be this popular, to be honest with you.

Really?

We had a very hard time getting it started. It was real difficult. We had a meeting way back with some concerned citizens in 1987. We sat in a big office of a pediatrician. He had invited me over and we wanted to talk about doing something for the citizens of Brandon who don't have health care. At that time, Brandon was not nearly as large as it is now, but it was growing. They worked at the Judeo-Christian Clinic and they wanted to model a clinic out here similar to that.

How did you end up being the person who spearheaded the project?

It was kind of haphazard. I said, "We really need to have a central focus. Someone who's going to drive this thing and guide it. We've been sitting here for an hour and a half and we've gotten nowhere." The next thing I know everyone is pointing at me.

Right. Good idea, you do it.

I'm not a good leader, I don't do things like this. I would much rather be an Indian than a chief, but they wouldn't accept that. So I took on the responsibility and at that time we had nothing. We had no money, no place, no funds or anything.

What was the first night like?

We opened April 5, 1987, and we didn't see one patient. I drove home that night and I was literally in tears. I walked in and my wife said, "How did it go?" I told her we didn't see anybody. I thought this was going to be the biggest failure ever. The next Wednesday night we saw 51 patients.

Was that just word of mouth?

Yeah it was. From there, everything got better and better and bigger. It's been a success. Everybody links my name with the clinic and I think it's because of this spearheading I did in the beginning, but there's lots of volunteers who have been there over the years who have done marvelous work.

How important is the work that's being done at the clinic?

It's hard to run a business, be a father and husband and every Wednesday night go to the outreach clinic. I've kept it up and it's a really big part of me. It's just the symbol that we can do something that doesn't cost the taxpayers a dime. Where else would these patients be seen? Where else would they go? A lot of them wouldn't go anywhere, therefore they're not treated. Therefore their diabetes gets worse, their hypertension gets worse, their emphysema gets worse. We're able to intervene and prevent some of these major problems from happening. If you're not talking about helping people, just the monetary benefit the Brandon Outreach Clinic has given this area is amazing.

What's the biggest challenge you're facing today as a family doctor?

The public may not understand it, but there is a true crisis in medicine. It's not only malpractice, it's much more challenging to make a good living in medicine. (Today), I started before 8. I didn't have lunch, went straight through to the end. It takes a good 10- or 11-hour day. That's part of the challenge. We've become the billing agent for the patients for the HMO system. I'm the referral agent, and it's expensive. That's overhead I never had before. Owning your own business is one thing. Taking the responsibility of seeing sick and dying patients is another thing. Combining both of those is difficult sometimes.

Do we expect too much from doctors today?

That's a good question. For the most part, I would tell you that the vast majority of physicians are very compassionate, caring individuals. The vast majority of physicians do not want to make a mistake. They do everything they can to make sure they're patients are healthy. But medicine is not a perfect science by any means. Admittedly, there is some negligence that goes on, but we would like to see as little of that as we possibly can. But do patients expect more of us today? I think so.

It seems like it's almost to the point where you can't make a mistake.

We are required to be perfect (laughs). You learn that real quickly. And we can't be. Being on the board of trustees at the hospital and the credentials committee as many times as I have, to see how many unnecessary lawsuits there are - it's a dangerous situation. The public is going to end up suffering if that doesn't change. And I'll be honest with you, I think the law profession creates a lot of it by inciting lawsuits, and there's no provision to stop it.

Do you cringe every time you hear the word Tallahassee?

I think that the politicians in Tallahassee, especially the ones from this area, should do what's right for their constituents, not to simply better their career or their standing. They need to look at what's happening here.

What's the best thing about being in family medicine?

I enjoy my relationships with patients as much as anything in medicine. It's one thing to make a great diagnosis, it's another thing to counsel a family whose loved one is sick and dying, but to establish a relationship over the years with these people and have them keep coming back to you. I've seen some of them as Little League players and now I'm seeing their children. That's the nicest thing about medicine. There isn't an HMO in the world that can take that away. Someone once told me that's the opiate of medicine. I would have a difficult time leaving medicine because of that.

Do you ever get frustrated with diseases?

When I first started out in medicine, I was convinced I could cure every patient of every disease, sort of like a Don Quixote type of thing. As time went on I got more realistic. Although we certainly try to cure every patient and try to make them 100 percent better, we know that we're not going to. That's when we have to shift into another gear and say, "This is what we can do now." And when we realize the end is near, we have to shift into another gear. Many times it's as hard for the physician as it is for the patient and the family. I can't tell you how many times I've cried over patients. I've walked out of many a room in the office or in the hospital with tears in my eyes, hoping no one would see me.

DESSERT: A postscript from Ernest

Steve calls his wife, Marian, his best friend and notes that she also has been a leader in the community, helping raise money for the American Cancer Society. Other than dreams of playing shortstop for the Washington Senators, Parks said he has always wanted to be a doctor because he admired an older brother who was a physician. Although he went to undergrad at the University of South Florida and got his medical degree from the University of Miami, he is, like me, an avid Florida Gator. Hopefully that will help us be friends even though my wife works for an HMO.

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