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Healthcare Foundation celebrates 20 years
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Healthcare Foundation celebrates 20 years

Staff Writer, New Jersey Jewish News

Marsha Atkind, executive director of HFNJ. Photo courtesy HFNJ
Marsha Atkind, executive director of HFNJ. Photo courtesy HFNJ

At a recent “white coat” ceremony at New Jersey Medical School, the ritual when medical students mark their transition to learning in real-life clinical settings, Marsha Atkind was struck by a story a physician told about two patients, both admitted with equally severe cases of HIV-AIDS and Hepatitis C, who both received the same medical treatment. While one lived, the other died. 

When the sheets were removed from the bed of the patient who passed away, all of the pills she had been given were hidden under her mattress. “She came from a Creole background and believed in voodoo, not Western medicine,” said Atkind. The doctor acknowledged that he had never taken the time to understand who she was and what she believed in. Atkind, and the doctor, both use the anecdote to underscore the importance of relationships in medicine. “If he had taken the time, maybe he could have found a way to get her to take the pills, and maybe she could have survived,” Atkind said. 

That empathetic view of how medicine should be practiced encapsulates Atkind’s vision for the Healthcare Foundation of New Jersey (HFNJ), where she serves as executive director. Her favorite part of the year is the annual gala, which will be held this year on July 1, and at which the foundation gives its Humanism in Healthcare award. The award recognizes the orderlies, social workers, nurses, and others who are nominated by their peers for showing “extraordinary compassion.” Atkind explained, “This is about treating patients as people, not just, ‘Oh, she has liver whatever,’ but she’s a person.”

This year, HCF celebrates 20 years of grant making. In the 20 years since it was formed from the sale of Newark Beth Israel Hospital to Saint Barnabas Medical Center in 1996, it has focused on low-budget, high-impact gifts in health care to two distinct populations once served by “the Beth,” as Newark Beth Israel was known. HFNJ supports vulnerable populations of Greater MetroWest and Newark. 

In the Jewish community, the vulnerable populations include the elderly and those with developmental disabilities and mental health issues. In Newark, HFNJ has focused on everything from ensuring people receive basic health care by establishing health clinics in schools, to expanding care in hospitals, to providing funds for veterans.

Over two decades HFNJ has honed its vision, its giving, and its mission. Its endowment has grown from $125 million to $175 million, and grant making has jumped from $3.1 million in 1997 to more than $8 million this year. 

Atkind discussed with NJJN how the grant-making organization’s vision and mission have sharpened, and how the issues it funds have evolved over time.

The basic concept hasn’t changed. “Health-care needs never go away,” she said. “We want to be there to help people get the best care they can.”

Giving has remained focused on children’s health, mental health, disability, medical research, geriatric care, and humanism in health care. 

In the area of mental health, grants have ranged from $335,000 to over $3 million in 2016. “There’s so much recognition that thestate of one’s mental health is so tied to physical health,” said Atkind. “People with serious mental health issues live 22 years less than people without those issues. And that’s because of stress tied to physical problems.”

The second reason? “If we can address mental health issues when kids are young, we can avoid so many social problems. We can boost performance in schools and avoid contact with the juvenile justice system.”

In 2014, the foundation began to focus on veterans’ mental health, with grants of over $700,000 to reach the most vulnerable in this group. “In the macho culture of the army, soldiers are encouraged to be very strong. On active duty they have a cadre of people supporting each other. But when they come home, they don’t have that plus they have the trauma of combat. Some can deal with that; some can’t,” she pointed out. So the Healthcare Foundation began funding five different programs for veteran mental health issues, ranging from providing written material for kids from military families to counseling services.

Even for recipients of small grants, some of the issues have remained the same.

As Atkind pointed out, one of the first grants the foundation made was to help establish The Rachel Coalition, an organization that assists victims of domestic violence. One of the most recent gifts was for production of a play, “Slut: The Play,” about body shaming and sexual assault. “The problem of domestic violence is not going away,” Atkind said bluntly.

The Healthcare Foundation does not shy away from difficult issues with little “curb appeal.” For example, it has funded needle exchange programs for about seven years — ever since federal law prevented federal funding from providing clean needles for drug users. (The needle exchange facility also offers counseling and programs to kick the habit.) “Carloads of people come in from the suburbs,” she said. “Sometimes mothers bring their teenagers because they don’t want them using dirty needles.”

Over the years, Atkind acknowledged, the HFNJ has become more and more cognizant of the social determinants of health, and so it has taken on the funding of programs to improve nutrition, fight hunger, and house the homeless. “We recognize now that your zip code and related factors have at least as much impact on your health as do genetics,” she said.

Looking forward, she suspects they will begin to take on the opioid crisis, although so far, no one has made requests in the area of drug abuse. She acknowledged that when speaking with heads of Jewish agencies, she is not hearing a need. But she added, “I can say that when we started talking about domestic violence, the feeling was that the need wasn’t there in the Jewish community. It wasn’t true.”

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