Southwest Florida’s early history is often associated with the likes of Henry Ford, Thomas Edison and Barron Collier. When the population boom began some six decades ago, new leaders emerged to help build hospitals, schools and businesses needed to serve the new residents.
This year, we are honoring two local leaders whose mission it is to improve the health of our communities: Nancy Lascheid, who with her late husband, Bill, co-founded the Naples’ Neighborhood Health Clinic, which provides medical treatment to the working poor; and Lee Health CEO and President Jim Nathan, who has led the expansion of the system to cover a wide geographic area.
The Neighborhood Health Clinic, co-founded by Bill and Nancy Lascheid, provides medical treatment to Collier County’s working poor.
Nancy Lascheid can clearly remember opening night at the Neighborhood Health Clinic, back in April 1999. Together with a volunteer and her late husband, Bill Lascheid, Nancy cared for eight patients that evening.
In many ways, the clinic was already a success story. The Lascheids had taken an idea they had hatched a year earlier at their kitchen table—to provide quality medical care to Collier County’s working poor—and gathered enough community support to secure a donated three-room space and open its doors. In 1998, the Lascheids had retired from their full-time medical practice, where Bill was a dermatologist and Nancy a registered nurse.
But after that first night, Lascheid wasn’t feeling anything resembling the thrill of success. Instead, she felt overwhelmed. “We drove home, we pulled into the garage. Bill was very quiet, and I started to cry,” she admits. “That was the ‘ah-ha’ moment, when we realized the severity of [the patients’] illnesses, and the scope of care they were going to need, and how naïve we were about what we were getting into. I turned to him, and said, ‘What are we going to do?’”
The answer, it turned out, was to keep moving forward.
Eighteen years later, the nonprofit clinic treats patients at its state-of-the-art facility on Goodlette-Frank Road in Naples, and relies on some 700 medical and non-medical volunteers to continue its work. In 2015, the clinic counted upward of 8,000 patient visits. It provides medical and dental care to adults ages 19 to 64 who work a minimum of 80 hours a month, but lack health insurance, Medicaid or Medicare.
Plans for future expansion are on the horizon, too.
Bill Lascheid’s vision was to use the neighboring land, also owned by the clinic, to create “a campus environment” where patients could enjoy the full complement of medical services. In conversations with clinic doctors, it was deemed especially urgent to create a strong dental program, since many chronic diseases are linked to dental care. That’s phase one of the clinic’s coming growth, and is slated to begin at the end of 2017, Nancy Lascheid says. After that, the clinic will evaluate what to add next, whether it’s a radiology or laboratory facility, or possibly an auditorium for patient education.
“It’s going to be decided by what the patients bring in the door,” Lascheid says. “It’s patient-driven.”
Bill died in 2014 at age 88.
Through the years, it’s not just the facility that has evolved. Lascheid has seen the patients change, too, from an earlier time when many were men in their early 40s who worked in the construction industry and needed urgent, episodic care. Now, she’s witnessed a cultural shift to where more of the patients are women in their 40s to 60s, usually with minimal work experience and little education, who are serving as caregivers to their grandchildren and often sharing a residence with others in their same situation.
Some of the clinic’s patients are homeless or are working two or three jobs to scrape by in Collier’s tight affordable housing market. Almost all are employed in the service industry—fast food or housekeeping or landscaping—or in construction.
And always, there’s one thing that has stayed constant: Her respect for her patients and their resiliency. There is no taking a day off for these individuals, Lascheid noted, not when every dollar earned goes to rent or food or other basic necessities.
“Nothing has changed in my shock at how sick some of our patients are, and how they keep putting one foot in front of the other,” Lascheid says.
Nancy and Bill’s daughter, Leslie Lascheid, now serves as the clinic’s chief executive officer. Prior to that, she assisted the clinic in an informal capacity, and jokes that although she once believed she understood the clinic, it wasn’t until she came onboard in an official role that she grasped the complexities of its inner workings. And the gratitude that patients have for her parents.
Leslie tells the story of one patient, a man with a rare type of chronic kidney failure. He’s alive today because of the clinic’s care, Leslie says. But even with all of the clinic’s treatment, he’s still burdened by health struggles. One of those setbacks required a trip to the emergency room, which Leslie provided in her car. After a moment of quiet on the ride, the man spoke.
“He said, ‘There’s not a chair in heaven for your parents, there’s a golden throne.’ And that’s all he said, and he smiled,” Leslie says.
Jim Nathan has guided Lee Health’s expansion for more than 35 years.
Jim Nathan was only 12 the first time he was called upon to act as an advocate for his ailing father.
Years later, the moment has stayed with him, how his father asked him to step outside his hospital room and listen to the doctors as they stood nearby debating his care. When he returned to his father’s room, young Jim told his father that it seemed the doctors weren’t sure what to do next.
That’s when his father told him something he would hold onto all his life: “There’s a difference between the art of medicine and the science of medicine,” Nathan says.
Nathan’s father knew that well. The president and CEO of Lee Health calls his father a “professional patient,” someone who suffered from everything to diabetes to pleurisy to asthma to “things I can’t remember to things I can’t spell,” Nathan says. By the time Nathan graduated from Miami University of Oxford in Ohio in 1968, his father’s chronic illnesses had led him to resolve three things: The first was never to pick a career that involved doctors, patients and medicine.
The second was never to earn an advanced degree. The third was never to have a job that required manual labor.
Now, Nathan holds master’s degrees in hospital and business administration from Xavier University in Cincinnati, and is 17 years into his second term as president and CEO of Lee Health. He first joined the public hospital system in 1975, originally intending to stay only a year, but went on to become vice-president from 1976 to 1981.
“I stayed true to No. 3,” he says with a laugh. At the start of his first term as CEO at Lee Health— then Lee Memorial Hospital—the system was limited to one downtown Fort Myers hospital. But Nathan, who first served from 1981 to 1997, saw opportunities for growth. With those opportunities came more chances to care for more patients, especially those with limited financial resources, he says.
Nathan knows that constructing new hospitals, such as the HealthPark Medical Center in 1991, or acquiring other existing medical facilities, has earned Lee Health some critics in the community, individuals who say the hospital system is on a mission to gobble up all its competition. But Nathan refutes that claim.
“I feel really good about the decisions and the risks that we’ve taken through the years, for the motivation of it,” he says. “It’s not for the purpose of getting big to be big. It’s been for the purpose of making sure that we have a wide range of services so we can truly care for those who are less fortunate.”
He also feels warmly about the team that the hospital system has assembled.
When Nathan first started with the hospital, there were about 1,200 employees in the one downtown Fort Myers hospital, and Nathan knew most of them by name; now, there are more than 13,000 employees in four adult acute-care hospitals, one children’s hospital, one rehabilitation hospital, one skilled-nursing and rehabilitation facility, a regional cancer center, and numerous outpatient facilities and doctor’s offices.
“There are always opportunities for improvement, but in general, throughout the entire organization, these are loving, caring people, wanting to do the right things on behalf of the people they care for, and each other,” Nathan says.
Nathan left the hospital system in 1997 to pursue a healthcare consulting role, but returned as president and CEO in 2000. Those years away were instructive, but he was glad to be back in Fort Myers.
“I left Lee believing that it was time for me to try some other things and do some other things on a national basis,” he says. “I got a lot of stuff out of my system, so when I came back I was, and continue to be, fully focused on this organization and this community.”
That dedication to his profession is something his friend and longtime running partner Cliff Smith, president of the United Way of Lee, Hendry, Glades and Okeechobee Counties, describes as characteristically Jim Nathan. (Nathan runs four days a week; he’s been jogging regularly, he says, for nearly 50 years.)
Smith jokes that the only time Nathan isn’t working is when he’s running.
“Jim is one of the true heroes and icons of our community,” Smith says. “When you think of honesty, integrity and professionalism in our community, you think of Jim Nathan. And I think when you talk to people out there about Jim, the other thing is Jim’s work habits are legendary.”
He also praised Nathan’s ability to lead with grace.
“Jim is just so humble,” he says. “He never takes credit for any of the stuff that he does, and I think that’s one of the reason he’s such a great leader.”
We invite readers to join us this year in honoring our fourth round of Lifetime Achievement recipients on May 10, with a celebration from 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. at the Hilton Naples. For more information, please call (239) 449-4154 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.