‘A Great Gift’

 March 7, 2017

Ethel Worthington eased into the offices of the Family Practice and Counseling Network, pushed gently in her wheelchair by her daughter, Barbara. Everyone greets her with a smile, reaching to touch her hand, saying hello. It seems like she knows everyone here, and more or less, she does.

Ethel Worthington has been coming to this health clinic, in all its forms and in various locations, since it first opened in 1992. She’s 96 years old, born Dec. 16, 1914, and was one of the first patients ever to walk through the old Abbottsford Health Clinic. She still comes here for health care.

“Oh, everything has changed,’’ Ethel said, chuckling softly. “It’s a whole new place. Everything has changed, the employees and all, everybody’s changed. But it’s still nice, and they take good care of me. So, it’s different, but in a good way.”

The Family Practice & Counseling Network was founded in 1992 by Resources for Human Development as a lone health clinic and has now expanded into a network of nurse-managed health centers that offers primary care for all ages, and serves public housing residents, the poor and the uninsured. Under Torrisi’s guidance, Family Practice has become one of the largest nurse-managed health centers in the country, handling more than 85,000 patient visits a year. It offers primary care for all ages, including family planning, prenatal care and dental care, as well as mental and behavioral health care.

Still one element has never changed – patients who come here are treated like part of the family. The Family Practice clinics have always been part of their community, and those communities have embraced them. Patients keep coming back because Family Practice combines top-quality medical care with a warm and friendly embrace.

Ethel was a former hospital worker when she first walked through the doors of the old Abbottsford clinic, the first Family Practice site. She knew about medical care. And she knew very quickly that she’d found a place she could trust.

“I liked the clinic,” she said. “I liked the service they gave me. Everybody was fine. Friendly. I got along with everyone. They gave me good service.

“I liked Donna; she made me feel very comfortable. I tell people this is a nice place to go to see about your health. There are nice people here, and you should go and visit to get help if you need it.”

Torrisi laughed with Ethel about how much has changed, and how much has not. When Ethel first started coming to Abbottsford, she was in her late 70s. The nurses there continually offered to send a van to get her to and from appointments, but Ethel simply waved them off and got everywhere on her own. Today she has more people who care for her, and she still has people at Family Practice who care about her.

“She’s such a doll,” said Pat Thomas, who was a receptionist and behavioral health coordinator when Abbottsford first opened. “When she has an appointment, she really wants to see Donna. She doesn’t want to see anybody else. When she wants something, we try to give it to her. When she calls me, I come running.

“Abbottsford was a family place. When you came in, everybody knew one another, you were greeted with hugs, we knew whose patient was who’s. That clinic was always a loving clinic, like a family. We learned that from Donna. We’d always treat patients like they’d want to be treated.”

Donna Torrisi wrote the book on nurse-managed health centers

Donna Torrisi walks through the halls of her family practice clinic, sees a patient she’s known for years, and gives her a hug. A young girl comes running up; Torrisi greets her just as warmly as she did the little girl’s mom when the little girl’s mom was a patient, too….

Ethel smiled when asked her secret to a long and healthy life. She quit smoking in the 1930s, and had no vices to speak of, save an occasional trip to Atlantic City. She made sure to get regular checkups. And she’s had a life full of friends.

“I feel like I have lots of good, old friends – one of them is sitting beside me,” she said, reaching over and patting Torrisi on the arm.

“I would always see her, out and about,” Torrisi said. “I was always impressed by her independence. She’s such a little bitty thing, but so strong inside and so big in other ways. It’s just really been an honor to know her all these years.”

Torrisi said she’s touched by Ethel’s loyalty to – and obvious affection for – Family Practice and the people there.

“That certainly makes me feel good,” Torrisi said. “I’m thrilled when people say they like working here and when people feel like it’s a friendly place to get their health care and have trust in us.

“Medical institutions and medical care can often be very impersonal. When people are getting medical care they usually feel pretty vulnerable. And it’s important to make people feel as loved and as comfortable as you possibly can when they need it the most. One of the challenges for me is to keep a sense of warmth and smallness and community, but I also am someone who really likes bringing more services and serving more people. So we’ve gone from one to three health centers, and we’ve added dental and grown our behavioral health department.”

Next year Family Practice will celebrate 20 years of service to the community, with Torrisi as its only director.

“I expected to be here five years, and 19 years later, why am I still here? I’ve been very moved and inspired by the people we take care of,” she said. “That’s what has made me want to be here. I can’t imagine being anyplace else. Those relationships are important. They’re a great gift.”

Ethel, sitting there listening, missed that last part and asked: “What was that, dear?”

Torrisi spoke up: “I said: You’re a great gift.”

Ethel said: “Yes, that’s so,” and Torrisi laughed and grasped her hand.