If there's one man who knows about the need for quality health care, it's Dr. J. Paul O'Keefe, a River Forest physician who has devoted his life's work to helping the poor achieve good health.
O'Keefe, a specialist in infectious diseases and associate chairman of the Department of Medicine at Loyola University Medical Center, is the founder and director of the Maywood Primary Care Clinic. The clinic provides care to patients O'Keefe calls Cook County's "underinsured," a group often found among the working poor. His patients are people who have jobs, he notes, but those jobs offer either very limited benefits or no benefits at all.
O'Keefe, who's been on the faculty at Loyola University Chicago Stritch School of Medicine for 27 years, was recently awarded one of the university's highest honors. On Nov. 19, he received the Stritch Medal, which recognizes outstanding service in medicine by a graduate or faculty member of the Stritch School (he's both), in recognition of his work with the poor and his research on HIV and AIDS.
In 1987, O'Keefe partnered with the Loyola Medical Center in Maywood and the Cook County Department of Public Health to establish the Maywood clinic. With assistance from four fellow physicians who volunteer their time and a dozen Loyola medical residents, the clinic is able to see 40 to 60 patients on Tuesdays and Thursdays each week.
"We do primary care at the clinic," says O'Keefe. "But if any of our patients need advanced diagnostic studies or to see specialists outside of the realm of primary care, it's all done at Loyola, and the cost is written off. So, it's charity care on the part of Loyola and the faculty."
O'Keefe has also been in the forefront of battling prejudice against patients with HIV and AIDS. He conducted pioneering research into the attitudes of physicians and other medical personnel, and lead the HIV/AIDS task force for Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Chicago. The committee worked with local parishes on AIDS outreach and developed educational programs for area Catholic schools. O'Keefe still does general medical outreach through Catholic Charities.
At the Maywood clinic, located at First Avenue along the Eisenhower Expressway, O'Keefe sees patients on Tuesday mornings. When he speaks of his work, he's humble and modest, insisting that he doesn't just do this for his patients, he also for himself.
"I've always felt this is something I was meant to do," says O'Keefe, who has volunteered in various clinics since he was a medical student. "This is something that, thank goodness, I've been afforded the opportunity to continue to do."
O'Keefe credits Loyola for supporting his dedication to the clinic. "I think there are some places that would suggest this is not the population that we want to serve," he says. "And instead, at least working at Loyola, there's been an attitude similar to mine. I think that attitude permeates our work force, and that's why I think people are so willing to support it."
"I recognize that a significant reason for me receiving the [Stritch] award was the fact that for all the years that I've been here, I have been sort of a spokesman for this component of what we do," he continues. "I'm hopeful that the remarks I made when I was accepting the award would make an impact on the audience to make some of them think about giving their time and talents to the same thing."
O'Keefe requires his students to do clinic work as a part of their residencies. But, he says, he hopes that leading by example will encourage them to do more. "I hope that some of the students and residents get the sense that there's a population of people who need them."
O'Keefe would like to play a key role in expanding the Maywood clinic in the future. "I would hope that we might grow. We've talked about it over the years, and have yet to get to a point where we were ready to do so. But I am hopeful," he says. "I think we could do much more to serve the people in Maywood and its surrounding communities if we had a much bigger operation."
He believes Loyola is just the hospital to help him do it.
"When you see the television ads for Loyola, and they talk about treating the human spirit, that's a real thing," he says. "I don't think it's just something to catch people's attention and make them come to the hospital. I personally think there is a difference, and I think that wouldn't be there if it wasn't for this attitude that people here have."
O'Keefe says his years of work with the clinic have been therapeutic for him. He beams with enthusiasm when he talks about the relationships he's established with his patients over the years, seeing them through childhood, adolescence and into adulthood.
"It's wonderful to be a part of these people's lives," he says. "That I like. To me, that's what medicine is all about."