Long before there was the current concern for the millions in the United States without health insurance, or the money to pay for expensive healthcare, there was a compassionate and dedicated individual who did something creative and constructive about this dilemma.
It was in 1997 that Dr. Garabed Fattal established a free clinic, subsequently named after him, in Binghamton, N.Y. In the last 12-plus years, 400 to 500 volunteer physicians, nurses, pharmacists, lab technicians, and office personnel have devoted their free time every Monday and Thursday evenings from 5 p.m. to as long as it takes, to service indigent people and those without health insurance. At present, the weekly work load includes 100 to 120 patients, and climbing. There is also a Wednesday evening dental program serving the clinic patients.
“Since the time when we started this system in 1997, we have not even once interrupted our services because of lack of personnel,” Fattal related proudly, during an interview with this writer at the recent Armenian Medical World Congress held in New York’s Hilton Hotel over the July 4th week.
Over the last 12 years, the Dr. Garabed A. Fattal Community Free Clinic has processed over 40,000 patient visits. Located in Broome, Binghamton’s largest county with a population of 250,000, the clinic also serves people from surrounding counties and neighboring upstate Pennsylvania. “We don’t discriminate,” he stated with emphasis.
Fattal was 67 years old when he retired from a large consolidated hospital facility where he was the chairman of a centralized and highly sophisticated department of pathology. He is also a clinical professor at the Upstate Medical University where he has been a 30-year member of the admissions committee. It was when he retired that he decided something must be done for those without health insurance in the Binghamton area.
Stand up and be counted
What motivated him? “Many people are unable to obtain and pay for healthcare. It was unthinkable for me that this most advanced and sophisticated society can’t take care of its own people. In America today, there are almost 50 million people with no health insurance, and another 20 to 25 million with inadequate coverage.” He decided that “those of us who have been in the healthcare professions should stand up and be counted.”
It took two years to convince other retired doctors to open a clinic. It was not easy. He had to find a locale to practice, and to convince the local hospitals to treat the patients for free. “It was a very long and complex job. We finally ended up with a system in the county health department pro bono with examination rooms. When the day workers leave, we come in after hours,” he explained.
And then there was the all-important issue of money. “We had to prod the county.” Half a million dollars were needed per year—all through donations. New York state, the county, and local charities all contributed, and the rest came from many generous individual donors. Fattal has been one of the major donors.
Care, aftercare, and medicines were given to the patients without charge. In addition, when a patient was in need of an operation, a sophisticated hospital procedure, or further research on a case, the hospital did it for free. “This was an opportunity to tell a hospital CEO to help us,” he related.
Currently, still on the faculty of the medical school, Fattal is aware that other people will have to be groomed to carry on this crucial endeavor, and he’s hard at work doing so. “I’m not a doctor who retires, goes to Florida and plays golf. And, I have no interest in healthcare politics,” he said, pointing out that the clinic was named after him only after the continued insistence of his colleagues.
A 500-year community
Born in Aleppo, Syria in 1927, Fattal comes from an Armenian family with deep roots in Aleppo for more than 500 years. He explained that there has been an Armenian community in Aleppo during these five centuries, with many Armenians emigrating from Giligia over the years. “There is a 500-year old Armenian church in Aleppo named ‘Karasoon Mangantz Yegeghetzi’ dedicated to the 40 Armenian martyred children. It is a beautiful old church, big like a cathedral,” related Fattal.
Following the Armenian Genocide, his father Asdvadzadour (God-given) chaired a committee of the Salvation Army that found homes and jobs for the genocide survivors who settled in Aleppo. “The local Muslim community welcomed the huge influx of Armenian survivors. The Armenians felt safe there.”
The Fattal family going back centuries had been in the rug making business (Fattal being the Arabic word for weaver). From 1907-08, his father, who had studied law in Istanbul in the early years of the 20th century, returned to Aleppo. Following World War I when Syria and Lebanon became French colonies, his father became a judge, rising to the highest court in the country.
His mother Mariam was born in Aintab. Her grandfather’s brother was the priest of the Aleppo Armenian Church, and while still very young, his mother was sent to Aleppo. Young Garabed was one of six children of Asdvadzadour and Mariam Fattal, all of whom having become professionals in different fields.
Studying at the St. Joseph University Medical School in Beirut, Garabed Fattal graduated in 1953, and emigrated to the United States in 1954. Specializing in pathology, he went to Manitoba, Canada in 1955, and for the next 10 years, was on the faculty of the University of Manitoba Medical School and Hospital. Due to a friend’s urging, he came to Binghamton, where there was a great need for an experienced pathologist.
At Binghamton General Hospital where he worked for the next 25 years, he became director of laboratories. When Wilson Memorial, Binghamton General, and Ideal Hospitals consolidated, he became chairman of the department of pathology and director of clinical laboratories (with 250 professionals), retiring from active practice in November 1994.
Fattal, at 82 years young, has also been deeply involved in the St. Gregory the Illuminator Armenian Church in Binghamton, serving as its parish council chairman for 12 years. He skis, plays tennis, and bikes long distance, but above all, he prefers to talk about his pet project. “The people who are the core of this voluntary medical program are so committed, so dedicated. Some of them work on the staff of the community hospital, but they approach this after-hours volunteer program with utmost devotion.”
While he would like to pass the baton in the near future to a younger individual, Fattal states without hesitation that this program is an “absolute joy” for him, and that he intends to “stick around as long as possible.”