Michael Gentile, 51, comes from a family of food industry entrepreneurs. His father was a foreman at Warner Bread Bakeries and his mother a waitress before they opened their own restaurant in Palm City.gentile.head

“When your mother and father owns a business, the rest of the family joins in and works,” said Gentile, who found his passion as a chef. “I’ve been working since I was 12 years old and paying my own way since I was 15.”

For 16 years, the family had Gentile’s Restaurant and Deli in Palm City. “It was part of the community, not just a business,” Gentile said. He always had health insurance. But everything changed when the the economy took a dive.

“All of a sudden, you find yourself in a position where you don’t have insurance anymore and you don’t have what you need to take care of yourself.”

One of Gentile’s three sisters is an RN who knew about VIM Clinic. “When things started to go wrong, and I lost my insurance, she told me about this place.”

Gentile’s sister helped him collect the paperwork he needed to prove his residency and financial status. He was accepted as a VIM Clinic patient in early 2011.

Gentile’s health issues are serious and complex, requiring comprehensive, multidisciplinary care coordinated by Medical Director Dr. Howard Voss. Over the past several months, Gentile has lost 75 lbs. and improved his mobility. Despite his difficulties, he’s always cheerful with the staff and volunteers.

“There’s not a person here that makes you feel you’re any less of a person because you can’t afford to pay, which really makes a huge difference,” Gentile said. “It’s not what you do, it’s the way you do it that matters. And the staff here is great. I actually look forward to coming here.”

Gentile says he always wanted to be rich — and the only way he knew to do that was to work hard. “But when health problems limit your ability to do things, it’s nice to know there’s a place like Volunteers in Medicine where you can get the help you need,” he said.

“It’s help that you can’t measure. You get what you need and you can still maintain your dignity, and that’s just as important as anything.”

Gentile is used to being independent, taking care of himself, providing for his parents and watching out for his sisters. “When you have health problems like I’ve gotten, you can’t do stuff like that anymore. It’s hard.”

It was an eye-opener when he first had to navigate the system and discovered how much his health care was going to cost him, even when he did have insurance. “For a person of average means, it’s next to impossible to afford it,” he said.

Gentile says the community is very fortunate to have physicians, specialists, nurses and others who volunteer their time and expertise to care for VIM Clinic patients.

“This place is a Godsend,” he said. “It should be 10 times the size that it is, with donations just flooding through the door, it’s just that important to the community.”

He can’t describe the peace of mind that comes from knowing he’ll be cared for, nor can he imagine what his life would be like without VIM Clinic. He chokes up just thinking about it.

“It’s helped me mostly because I don’t have to worry so much,” he said. “I know that they’re going to keep working on me until they get the problems straightened out and I can get back to some kind of normalcy.”

Gentile is enormously thankful for VIM Clinic and urges others in the community to provide their support.

“If you can afford to pay, make a little contribution once in a while, you should. Instead of going to the convenience store and buying $20 worth of crap, put $20 in an envelope and just send it in. Whatever you do is going to help, is going to make a difference. And that’s what this place is all about — making a difference.”