Gift of Caring

UPDATED 08/18/1997 at 01:00 AM EDT Originally published 08/18/1997 at 01:00 AM EDT

IT'S PRINCE CHARMING'S TURN," SAYS Dr. Larry Wolk with a disarming grin. At that, his next patient, Kyle Fadely, 13, quits tossing crumpled paper balls at his sister Shelby, 11, and hops up on the examining table in the Craig Medical Center in northwest Colorado. The Fadelys are among six children Denver-based Wolk has flown 200 miles to treat, some on a pay-what-you-can basis, in this tiny rural community (pop. 12,000). "I like him," says Kyle. "He gets down to our level." He also gets results. Since Wolk started seeing the Fadely kids seven months ago, he has helped tame their Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder with adjusted doses of Ritalin. Says Suzanne, 38, their grateful mother: "Dr. Wolk is a godsend for our family."

And for thousands of others across the state. Driven by the belief that "kids should not be penalized because of their parents' income," Wolk, 35, developed and runs the nonprofit Rocky Mountain Youth (RMY), which last year treated more than 10,000 children, including many homeless and poor kids who otherwise might not get medical care. Five doctors, three nurse practitioners and a social worker provide health care at Medicaid and reduced rates—or, for those unable to pay, for free—at the group's clinic at Denver's Columbia Presbyterian-St. Luke's Medical Center, its affiliate hospital. The staff also regularly visits six Denver agencies for the needy, four understaffed rural communities, including Craig, and mans a mobile health van that travels to a Denver suburb. In addition, Wolk's program runs a clothing bank, a food bank and a literacy project "because that's what our population needs," says Wolk. "It borders on disgusting how pediatric communities across the country aren't more obligated to take care of the poor."

His own ambitious program might not be around today if Wolk hadn't devised an ingenious strategy. Realizing that clinic fees and reimbursements from insured patients wouldn't cover the costs of caring for uninsured kids, Wolk persuaded the Internal Revenue Service last April to designate RMY as the country's first nonprofit direct-provider group. This allows it to accept grants and donations for improving services and offer better wages to caregivers who share Wolk's commitment but can't make a living from the reduced rates ($30 an hour for doctors and $15 an hour for nurse practitioners) RMY charges some agencies. "I can live comfortably and the intrinsic rewards are incredible," says Dr. Gini Taylor, 34, who joined the clinic last year. "You know you make a difference. That's what it's all about."

Yet even with contributions, RMY's annual budget, excluding Medicaid, is a paltry $138,000, so Wolk stretches a dollar any way he can. He's not above asking solvent patients to bring in old clothes for less fortunate ones or cajoling a pharmacy to donate medicine. And Wolk can't understand why that's the exception rather than the rule. "We trim the excess from those who have and give to those who have not—it's the Robin Hood philosophy," he says with a laugh. "Health care is too profitable. You should be making money and applying some of it toward taking care of kids. I see this as a role model for other practices."

Wolk knows about role models. The second of three children of Melvyn Wolk, 63, a retired Scranton, Pa., pediatrician, and his wife, Marilyn, 57, who ran his office, Wolk didn't plan to go into medicine. He thought he wanted to sing and act, and performed with the University of Pennsylvania glee club. Still, he says, "it just seemed ingrained in me that I would go to medical school." So after graduation he enrolled in the University of Vermont med school. "I kind of liked obstetrics. I kind of liked surgery. And then I did pediatrics and it was like, 'This is where I belong.' "

Wolk interned at Denver's Children's Hospital in 1988 and stayed for his residency. That's when he fell in love with nurse Helene Barocas, whom he married in 1991. They strung lights for a Christmas party on their first date. "We're both Jewish," recalls Helene, now 37. "We didn't know how to string them. It was the funniest thing." Their daughter Mikayla is 3, and Wolk is stepfather to Helene's children David, 13, and Andrea, 11.

As part of his residency, Wolk worked at a Denver General Hospital clinic, but he wasn't prepared for what he saw. "I grew up in a sheltered environment," he says. "I just couldn't believe that a parent wouldn't know how to feed a baby or change a diaper." Determined to care for neglected children, Wolk agreed in November 1992 to run Presbyterian-St. Luke's outpatient pediatric program. Since then, he has worked tirelessly to expand staff and develop outreach programs like the mobile health van he helped start in 1993. "Larry cares about families, that's the bottom line," says Marsha Phillips, 39, a nurse practitioner who works in the van. "We have a family that comes here and one child, the boy, doesn't like to be examined, so Larry goes out to the car, at the mom's request, to examine him. He meets the family, whatever level they're at."

Wolk, though, prefers to share credit with his colleagues. "Everybody that I work with is as important to this as I am," he says. "I may have gotten it started, but there is no way I could do this without the other doctors, nurses, clinic administrators and social workers." He pauses a moment, reflectively: "I can't tell you what would happen if we weren't here."

STEVEN LANG
VICKIE BANE in Denver

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