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Our History

How the Safety-Net for All Came Together

Seventy-three years ago, Detroit's Corktown was in the midst of transformation. One of the neighborhood's cornerstones, Most Holy Trinity Catholic Church, recognized the changing needs of the community and responded to the times. Volunteers cleaned out a room in the parish school and set up the equipment. Dr. Eugene Payne, a member of the research staff of Parke-Davis and Company, obtained approval from the Wayne County Medical Society for the clinic to serve Corktown school children and their families, many of whom were immigrants in need of basic medical care. The clinic opened to provide access to medical care for those in the area who could not afford it. Father Kern named it Cabrini Clinic in honor of Mother Frances Cabrini, the patron saint of immigrants. 

Violet Balazs Leming left her job to volunteer full time as the clinic's first director. Ex-army nurse Margaret Maxwell and her friends from St. Mary's Residence at Trumbull and Grand River assisted her. Eileen Troester was a clerical volunteer at the clinic from its beginning and, in 1955, succeeded Violet as Director. Eileen was a matter-of-fact person who leveraged her contacts at Parke-Davis and in the community to benefit Cabrini Clinic. The clinic quickly grew, adding maternity, dental and podiatry services. Prominent physicians and nurses from Detroit's hospitals, along with other volunteers, made sure the clinic was open at least two days a week. The school cafeteria hosted Alcoholics Anonymous meetings each Thursday, and Cabrini Clinic nurses and physicians would give Vitamin B Complex injections and offer vitamins to those seeking sobriety. Physicians from all over Detroit gave their drug samples to the Clinic, stocking its mini pharmacy with needed medications.

Over the years, the board was blessed with outstanding physician leadership, including Dr. Robert Nixon, Dr. Bruce Steinhauer, Dr. David Leach, and Dr. Jay Miller. The board met quarterly in the Doctors’ Dining Room at Henry Ford Hospital, and addressed issues such as facility renovation, equipment needs, staffing, and client case reviews. During Mary West’s tenure, Sheila Keefe joined the Medical Advisory Board as its first nurse member, bringing her public health skills to the deliberations. Sheila recalls discussions on the use of reusable glass syringes and needles vs. disposable equipment.  Mary also volunteered at the clinic and, in 1985, succeeded Terry Garrigan as the first director to be paid a small stipend. She coordinated patient home visits, often done by Dr. David Leach, a pediatric endocrinologist. The clinic was staffed on Wednesday evenings by Providence Hospital, and on Thursdays by Henry Ford.

In 1993, Most Holy Trinity’s Pastor, Father Russ Kohler, recognized the dramatic changes taking place in health care and the need for Cabrini Clinic to adapt. He asked Dr. Dorothy Reilly, a national leader in nursing and emeritus faculty member from Wayne State University, to help to chart the future direction for the clinic. Dorothy recruited a Planning Committee to help her, including long-term volunteer Sheila Keefe, Director of Trinity Community Outreach Sister Annette Zipple RSCJ, Vice President at the Detroit Medical Center Anne Sullivan Smith, student nurse and neighborhood resident Hermelinda Perez, and Sister of Mercy Mary Ellen Howard. Dorothy wrote a grant to the Metro Health Foundation, requesting support for the clinic goals set by the committee. In 1995, when Mary Jane resigned as Director, Father Russ asked Sister Mary Ellen to take her place and to implement the new direction for the clinic. The Planning Committee evolved into an Advisory Board, currently chaired by Sheila Keefe. Under Sister Mary Ellen’s leadership the number of volunteers increased from 18 to over 60. Volunteer Pharmacists, Psychiatric Residents, Nurse Practitioners, Medical Assistants, Massage Therapists, Diabetic Educators, Podiatrists, Biomedical Engineers, and Physical Therapists have made it possible for the clinic to expand services. Students from area universities, in particular the University of Detroit Mercy, seek clinical and service-learning experience at the clinic. Hundreds of other dedicated persons have volunteered over the 50-year history of the clinic and leave a rich legacy of service that makes Cabrini Clinic a unique expression.

In 1996, Sister Mary Ellen and Dr. Caroline Florescu started a Thursday afternoon clinic with support from nursing faculty at U of D Mercy and a grant from the Kellogg Foundation. A prescription assistance program was implemented in 1997, to assist patients in applying to the indigent drug programs of the pharmaceutical companies. A free mental health clinic started in 2000, on Wednesday afternoons, staffed by psychiatric residents from Henry Ford. Collaborative grants secured with the Optometric Institute and Clinic of Detroit make it possible for Cabrini Clinic patients to receive eye exams and glasses, diabetic eye screening and laser surgery for diabetic retinopathy.  As other doors are closing to the uninsured, increasing numbers of them are seeking care at the clinic, with increasingly severe illnesses. Cabrini Clinic helps hundreds of patients every year, but Most Holy Trinity’s free medical clinic is not the answer for the 270,000 uninsured and underinsured persons in Detroit. “Health Care is a Right, Not a Privilege.” Until the day when a basic level of health insurance is provided for all Americans, Cabrini Clinic will continue to respond to the need.

Free Healthcare

No Insurance Required

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