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Keeping the Phillips Neighborhood Clinic rolling

First-year pharmacy student Ernest Ruiz and second-year medical student Katy Bratko discuss a plan for patients at the Phillips Neighborhood Clinic. (Photo: Scott Streble)

It’s a unique but fitting tribute: A new medical cart at the 10-year-old Phillips Neighborhood Clinic (PNC) will bear the names of donors Mary K. and Gary Stern.

For a “pop-up” clinic that’s as nimble as it is vital—the students who run it out of a Minneapolis church basement set the whole thing up and take it down again every Monday and Wednesday—a dedication on wheels makes perfect sense.

“The cart holds the materials we need to treat the patients and to educate the students—our two main missions,” says medical director Brian Sick, M.D. Besides, the old one was in pretty bad shape: “We actually had to carry it.”

The Sterns’ gift—$25,000 to be paid in $2,500 increments over 10 years—will give the clinic an unaccustomed degree of stability, Sick says. “It’s nice to have the comfort of knowing that if a grant doesn’t come through, we won’t need to have those hard conversations about who’s not going to get care.”

A longtime board member of the former Minnesota Medical Foundation, Mary K. Stern served as president of Sit Mutual Funds before retiring in 2000. Gary Stern served as president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis until his retirement in 2009. They’re numbers people—and one of the key attributes that drew them to the PNC is its cost-effectiveness. The clinic, which handled 2,060 patient visits last year, operates on $45,000 annually.

“It’s such a reasonable approach to medicine. They’re not wasting anything,” Mary K. Stern says.

Mary K. and Gary Stern (Photo: Jim Bovin)

The Sterns live in the Kenwood area of south Minneapolis, just three miles from the Phillips neighborhood, where more than a third of residents live below the poverty line. “The clinic is in a neighborhood right next to ours, yet in terms of health care disparities, it might as well be another country. It just seemed that anything that’s working to shrink that gap would be a good thing,” Mary K. Stern says.

Her husband agrees. “It really makes a difference on the ground, which is not easy to do. And there are lots of winners—the patients, the students, the neighborhood.” Moreover, he adds, the PNC is a model for student-run clinics in underserved communities nationwide.

The Sterns say they appreciate that the PNC engages not only medical students, but also students in nursing, pharmacy, social work, and other health fields. Starting next year, students from the School of Dentistry will offer dental screenings at the clinic as well. The Sterns’ gift will likely help launch that endeavor, Sick says.

The couple admires how the clinic founders—and the students who continue expanding its reach—refuse to be thwarted by bureaucratic hurdles. “You can conjure up immediately a hundred reasons not to do this. What about malpractice insurance? What about staffing? What about the waiver?” Mary K. Stern says.

Proud grandparents (their four grandkids live nearby) and dog lovers, the Sterns enjoy bicycling and traveling. Both are also active volunteers and philanthropists who support numerous causes and organizations. But the PNC holds a special place in their hearts, and they relish telling its story.

“There isn’t anybody who doesn’t react positively to this,” Mary K. Stern says. “It doesn’t take much to get people committed to this idea.”

Thanks to the Sterns’ help, the Phillips Neighborhood Clinic will have wheels for years to come.

By Susan Maas

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