Dr. Samuel Cassell, a physician who founded a health center that relies on volunteer doctors and nurses to provide free care for the working poor of Bergen County, died Monday. He was 87.
The cause of death was glioblastoma, an aggressive type of brain cancer, diagnosed in August 2017, said his daughter, Susanna Kopchains. He was treated with surgery and chemotherapy until September.
Born and raised in New York City, he went to Brooklyn Tech High School, received a BA from Cornell University and an MD from Albany Medical College. After a residency in Internal Medicine at Albert Einstein College of Medicine, he married Carol Margaretten and joined Barnert Hospital and a private practice, in Paterson. In 1975 he trained in Fiberoptic Bronchoscopy at Mt. Sinai Hospital and was a leader in the application of fiber optics in pulmonary medicine in Passaic and Bergen Counties. He served as Chief of Staff and Chairman of the Dept of Medicine at Barnert Hospital, and as President of the Passaic County Chapter of the American Heart Association. He was a longtime clinical instructor at UMDNJ
The idea of tapping the skills of retired health care professionals to meet the needs of the poor in North Jersey came to Cassell after he retired in 2003 as an internist with a sub-specialty in pulmonary medicine. He had practiced for many years at The Valley Hospital in Ridgewood after beginning his career in Paterson in private practice and at Barnert Hospital.
After retiring, Cassell joined a medical mission to Haiti, where his eyes were opened to the role medical volunteers could play in meeting the needs of people with no access to health care. When a return trip to Haiti fell through, he began to think about addressing the medical needs of the poor closer to home.
Although Bergen County was a prosperous area, he knew there were many county residents — including an unknown number of undocumented immigrants — with low incomes and no health insurance.
"These are the workers who can't afford to go home when they get sick," Cassell, a Wyckoff resident, said at the time. "They work in our hotels and restaurants. They do our lawns and baby-sit." Treating them in a primary-care setting would save visits to the emergency room and prevent minor health problems from escalating, he said. "Plus, it's the humane thing to do."
Cassell gathered doctors he knew and invited representatives of community service agencies and local hospitals to a meeting at The Valley Hospital in November 2004. The group chose as its model Volunteers in Medicine, a national organization of free clinics than now has 88 affiliated clinics in 26 states.
Shortly afterward, they founded the Bergen Volunteer Medical Initiative, a nonprofit organization, said Amanda Missey, its president and CEO.
"He was like the pied piper," said Michael Azzara, who was president of Valley at the time and later served as chairman of the board of the Bergen Volunteer Medical Initiative. "This guy was on a mission: Wherever he went, he would tell people about his idea. His passion came through. He was able to get others with other skill sets to really put this together. "
Five years later, in December 2009, the health center Cassell envisioned opened in ground-floor space leased from the Bergen County Community Action Partnership, not far from the bus station in Hackensack. Major grants came from the Bolger Foundation, the Horizon Foundation for New Jersey, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the TD Charitable Foundation of TD Bank. The center received no government funding and was open parts of three days a week.
More than 700 patients received primary and preventive care from 75 health care professionals in its first nine months of operation. They were working-poor residents of Bergen County who did not have access to health insurance. No questions about citizenship were asked.
Bergen County's five hospitals agreed to take patients in need of hospital care, and a network of specialist physicians around the county also accepted referrals.
This year, the organization will celebrate its 10th anniversary. It has relocated to the Lynn Diamond Healthcare Center, a dedicated new space with six examination rooms, two consultation rooms and room for educational programs at 75 Essex St. in Hackensack. It is open five days a week and two evenings.
Last year, 65 clinical volunteers provided care for 1,450 patients through 7,800 patient visits, at an annual cost of less than $1,000 per patient. The center has special programs for management of diabetes, a condition affecting many of its patients, and women's health care. More than two-thirds of its patients are women.
"When you take care of a person's health, you are taking care of their family and community as well," Cassell said in a statement quoted on the organization's website. He received the American Medical Association's award of excellence in volunteerism 2014. He transitioned out of a leadership role at the organization after serving three years as board chairman.
Doctors who volunteer appreciate the "slow medicine" practiced at the center. They take their time with patients and show kindness to all, said Dr. Charlotte Sokol, a retired endocrinologist who has been with the organization since its inception. She treats people with diabetes. "Some of them haven't seen a doctor for a long time, some of them don't know they have diabetes, and some have been diagnosed and not treated," she said.
"For the physicians, it's an opportunity to do what we want to do, without any aggravation," she said. "We don't hire, we don't fire, we don't do payroll, we don't code or worry about billing. It's all of the pleasures of practicing medicine with none of the unpleasantness."
And many patients' lives have been saved.
"He's got quite a legacy," Azzara said of Cassell. "It will continue. It's sustainable. It's really because of the people he got involved
In 2013 he was recognized at the New Jersey Governor's Jefferson Awards for Public Service for extraordinary service to his community. In 2014 he was presented with the Jack B. McConnell, MD Award for Excellence in Volunteerism at the annual meeting of the AMA in grateful recognition of outstanding dedication and commitment as founder of BVMI. He was an avid sailor who enjoyed racing Sea Castle on the Long Island Sound with a dedicated crew, continuing to sail post- surgery. He also enjoyed bridge, pastels and Judaic studies. He had a gift for touching all who crossed his path in life.
Samuel Abraham Cassell was born February 8, 1931. He was predeceased by his father, Benjamin H. Cohen, mother, Beatrice Cassell and beloved sister, Lenore Felix. Dr. Cassell is survived by his wife of 55 years, Carol (nee Margaretten); children, Susanna Kopchains husband, Robert S. Kopchains; and David Cassell, wife, Charisse (nee Prado); grandchildren Benjamin and Emily Kopchains, Frances and Oona Cassell, and many loving cousins, nieces, nephews and family.
The Funeral will take place on Friday, January 11, at 10 am at Barnert Temple. Interment will immediately follow at Mt. Nebo Cemetery (195 Totowa Road, Totowa).
Donations in memory of Dr. Samuel Cassell may be made to Bergen Volunteer Medical Initiative (BVMI).