VIM patient turned volunteer turned staffer grateful for care

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Gigi Sharper-Moore, now a nurse's assistant at VIM, and Dr. Rick Sunderlin, an endocrinologist who has worked at the clinic for 20 years. He has treated Gigi for her diabetes. COURTESY VOLUNTEERS IN MEDICINE

Gigi Sharper-Moore is more than happy to tell you that she is 57 years old. "I am grateful to be 57," she said, with a big smile. "A lot of people I went to school with and worked with are gone."

She credits Volunteers in Medicine Clinic Hilton Head Island (VIM) for her health.

"I can't tell you how many, many people's lives VIM has saved," Gigi said. "I know they saved my life."

Her relationship with VIM, which began in the 1990s, evolved from her being a patient, to serving as a volunteer, and now working as a nurse's assistant. In many ways, VIM is her family.

The VIM Clinic on Hilton Head was founded by the late Dr. Jack McConnell, who retired to the island in 1989 after a career at Johnson & Johnson. He observed that in the midst of much luxury on Hilton Head there was still poverty, and he knew that the island boasted many retired doctors like himself.

His determination led, in relatively short order, to the establishment of VIM and the free clinic that opened in 1993. Today, there are 87 free health clinics across the country that follow the VIM model.

The clinic is funded through charitable giving, grants, and fund-raisers. The annual Circle of Caring Gala, which this year will be held on Nov. 23, is its biggest fundraiser, last year raising $230,000.

The clinic's mission was to serve those who lived or worked on Hilton Head or Daufuskie islands and could not afford health insurance; their income could not exceed 200% of federal poverty guidelines.

Many of the housekeepers, landscapers and golf course workers on the island qualified for the VIM Clinic. Gigi was one of them.

She held down two jobs when she moved from Philadelphia to South Carolina in 1991. "For the most part employers here did not provide insurance," Gigi said. Over time she worked in housekeeping at Marriott and also at Winn-Dixie, before it closed. Neither offered health insurance, but they did refer her to the VIM Clinic. "For my job, everything I needed was here," she said. "Physicals, Pap tests, mammograms."

In October of 2002, not feeling well, she had her blood pressure and glucose level checked at VIM. Both were off the charts; in fact, her glucose level was too high to be read at the clinic. "They had a social worker take me to the emergency room. They wouldn't let me drive." She was in intensive care for three days.

Gigi had Type 2 diabetes, and that's when she became a regular patient at VIM. She began to change her lifestyle with the help of the wellness program.

Today that wellness program, which includes all of VIM's diabetes patients, has more than 500 members who support each other as they learn to embrace a healthier lifestyle with more exercise and nutritious eating.

Shortly after her diagnosis, Gigi became a volunteer. It came naturally to her. "I've always been a service person," she said. In Philadelphia, she worked for years at a Head Start program. On the island, she worked at the Achievement School at Mount Calvary Missionary Baptist Church.

"I feel that once you come here and you become part of the family here, it's almost hard for you not to give back," Gigi said. "If you have a heart, you have to. They take care of the whole person here. For me, it was being diagnosed with diabetes, and the attention that they gave me."

For years, she worked as a lay volunteer at VIM, a half-day a week at the diabetes clinic, greeting patients, making appointments, shelving charts. "I had diabetes and I understood what they were going through," she said.

VIM's lifeblood is its volunteers. VIM currently relies on more than 650 volunteers, who range from doctors in various specialties, nurses, dentists, hygienists, counselors, pharmacists, and the lay volunteers. It's estimated that they donate more than 52,000 hours of patient services annually. Quite a few of those volunteers are, like Gigi, patients.

A little more than a year ago, Gigi found herself turning again to VIM. She had a history of breast cancer in her family and mammograms for several years had shown some abnormalities. Shortly her next annual mammo, she became concerned when she saw a bloody nipple discharge. "VIM got me in immediately for a mammogram. Everything came back positive. I was devastated, but I wasn't shocked," she said.

In November of 2018, she had a mastectomy. And then she became a member of another support group at VIM - breast cancer patients.

Gigi's diagnosis put off her plans to get her nurse's assistant certification for a year, but she went right back to it this past summer, and passed her courses with honors and her board certification as well.

And that led to her being hired by VIM, where she now works on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays. She continues to also work as a caregiver for patients with dementia and Alzheimer's.

Because she has experienced VIM's mission first-hand, as a patient, Gigi knows what a difference it can make.

"Education is everything," she said. "Awareness is everything. And here at VIM you get all of that. You get education, you get awareness, you get maintenance on life. They take care of the whole person."

The Circle of Caring Gala, set for Nov. 23, will be held at the Westin Hilton Head Resort & Spa. The event includes a cocktail reception, seated dinner, live music by Deas Guy, with lie and silent auctions. Tickets ae $225 per person. For more information and to buy tickets, call 843-681-6612 or visit VIMclinic.org.

Kathleen Williams is a freelance writer who is enjoying exploring her new home in the Lowcountry

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