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Dr. Kirk Voelker and his wife, Chris, give their time and treasure to the Sarasota Memorial Healthcare Foundation (SMHF). As its website states, “during the past four decades, the Healthcare Foundation has provided meaningful grants to enhance patient care, facilities, technology and support ongoing clinical education and medical research.”

Kirk says, “How can you not support the Healthcare Foundation and everything that it’s bringing to the community?”

Kirk grew up in Sarasota, attended medical school at UF, and headed to the University of California Irvine for a fellowship in pulmonary disease and critical care medicine. In 1996, he returned to Sarasota with Chris, a Los Angelena and corporate event planner who traveled the globe. She had her doubts about small city life. “I brought her back to Sarasota kicking and screaming,” Kirk jokes.

Kirk’s pulmonary practice kept him busy at Sarasota Memorial Hospital, where he marveled at the difference the Sarasota Memorial Healthcare Foundation had made both in the institution and in his hometown as a whole. “It helps provide technology and programs that few community hospitals have—because they’re outside of the scope of the budget of a normal community hospital,” he says. “That technology and support attract world-class physicians, which just improves health care in the community. That’s the full circle. We have very talented physicians who come from cutting-edge training programs or hospitals, and we’re able to supply the tools that they need to continue doing that cutting-edge work.”

Almost seven years ago, SMHF tapped Kirk to serve as a trustee and chair the grants committee. He accepted without hesitation. “I had the unique perspective of not only seeing from a physician’s standpoint the good that the Healthcare Foundation does, but also being involved with decision making and evaluating the grants.”

What the Healthcare Foundation looks to fund, says Kirk, is “technology or innovative programs that wouldn’t otherwise be available.” For example, SMH critical care physicians requested an ECMO machine—extracorporeal membrane oxidation—for the intensive care unit. Usually surgeons employ an ECMO in the operating room during cardio-bypass surgery. But the ICU doctors believed that a portable ECMO, used at bedside, could help their sickest patients by temporarily taking over heart and lung functions. The Healthcare Foundation found the proposal compelling and funded the purchase of an ECMO for the ICU. Last flu season, says Voelker, when traditional ventilators could not sustain several patients, doctors turned to the ECMO—and saved them.

“They would have died. Young people in their 30s, 40s, and 50s would have died,” says Voelker. He also points to a cardiac patient whose “heart was stunned to the point where it couldn’t pump.” Traditional pump and ventilator protocols failed him, says Voelker, but “we were able to put him on this heart-lung bypass machine in the intensive care unit, and he literally walked out of the hospital 10 days later.”

Now the hospital has two portable bedside ECMO machines, with physicians continuing to find new applications.

On her end, Chris fundraises for SMHF. She’s worked on the Healthcare Foundation’s gala and the Women & Medicine educational luncheon, which she co-chaired this year. With a featured speaker, the lunch is “all about bringing information and education to women on health issues,” she says. Last year’s program delved into stroke care and prevention. This year the program supported the FSU Internal Medicine Residency Program at SMH and stressed the importance of communication between women and their doctors—“if  you feel something, say something kind of thing,” says Chris. Close to 300 women attended. “It’s become a landmark event,” she says.

Chris also manages the Voelkers’ family business: State Street Eating House and Cocktails. When a tenant vacated their downtown storefront at the bottom of the recession, Chris fantasized about the space. “It reminded me of LA, with the art galleries nearby,” she says. “I thought, Maybe we can reproduce that here.” Their sandwich place grew into a full-fledged restaurant, now with a lounge next door, open seven days a week.

But even State Street Eating House “circles back to the Healthcare Foundation,” says Kirk.

“The connection is healthy food,” explains Chris.

As director of clinical research for the hospital, Kirk has been overseeing an SMHF-funded nutrition experiment called RENEW. The program focuses on “altering the disease process through exercise, nutrition, mindfulness, and community support.” Celebrity physician Dean Ornish has proven that extreme lifestyle changes can actually reverse cardiovascular disease and associated ailments, but the Ornish program is so strict that many people quit. “What we’re doing is less intense,” says Kirk, “but with hopefully the same benefits. It’s more sustainable.”

RENEW started with about 50 hospital employees, “teaching them about the benefits of a Mediterranean diet, a plant-based diet, not totally exclusive of animal proteins but just using the animal protein for an accent.” Within 12 weeks, with help from a nutritionist and a life counselor, “they’ve all had significant changes in their lifestyle,” says Kirk. Gone are the twice daily Big Gulps. “Some diabetics have been able to come totally off insulin.”

Since Medicare and insurance companies won’t reimburse costs for unproven treatments, let alone preventative care, Kirk explains, “that’s why we need the Healthcare Foundation believe in this, fund it and see we you can go with it.” This pilot has been so successful that RENEW will roll out to the community at large in 2020.

Inspired, the Voelkers attended the annual Healthy Kitchens, Healthy Lives conference sponsored by the Harvard School for Public Health and the Culinary Institute of America at CIA’s

Napa campus in California. About nine months ago, the couple revamped the State Street Eating House menu. “That same transformation, plant-based meals, healthy eating, with everything fresh, has also transformed our restaurant,” says Kirk. Highlighting plant-based foundations with a choice of proteins as the side, they took the leap that if you make it healthy—but delicious—they will come.

“We knew we weren’t going to go 100% vegan or vegetarian,” says Chris, “but we wanted people to start thinking, I’m going to have some of that great cauliflower, instead of I’m going to have steak for dinner. And it’s actually happening.”

Although Kirk’s trustee role on the Sarasota Memorial Healthcare Foundation’s board has termed out, he still serves as a grants committee community member.

Chris says that they’re “over-the-moon excited” about Sarasota Memorial Cancer Institute, which will relieve many local patients of the trip to the Moffitt Cancer Center in Tampa. For Chris, this is personal; one of her good friends had to commute for treatment, which separated her from her support network in Sarasota.

“We’re taking the top cancers that we see in this community and focusing on those,” explains Kirk. In addition to a new surgical tower and outpatient radiation sites, the Cancer Institute will have oncology nurse navigators. “The complexity of all the testing, services, and treatments is such that it’s overwhelming to the average person,” says Kirk. “And you add on cancer on top of that.” Cancer, he notes, thrives on stress. “So, the navigator program walks people through this, making sure their appointments are set up—you know, hold their hand through this process.

“We used to say that we had an amazing hospital for a city of our size,” he adds. “Now we just say we have an amazing hospital for anywhere. Period. We have become a major hospital in the United States. And that is due in part to the Healthcare Foundation.”

Article courtesy of Sarasota Scene Magazine

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