Dr. Thaddeus Bell became a doctor, his brother joked, when the pro football teams wouldn’t take him.
As a student at South Carolina State University, his father told him he had to leave the college team to study. After college, he struck out with the professional teams. So he refocused on medicine, to the benefit of Lowcountry patients.
The prominent North Charleston physician has worn many hats besides aspiring football star. Primary care physician, board member, diversity director, radio show host, track-and-field athlete, school teacher. He said in a speech at the opening of a new primary care clinic in Summerville he has brought world-class performance to each of his roles.
“And so I will be talking to the staff and to the employees about world-class performance, and making this center a center that will serve the underrepresented and the uninsured,” Bell said. “So much so that people that would not ordinarily come here will want to be patients here.”
About 150 people gathered Wednesday evening to watch the center’s opening, which will be named for Bell. It will be operated by Fetter Health Care Network, a local chain of clinics that caters to the low-income population.
Bell, who has sat on the board of Fetter for more than 20 years, and the centers’ CEO each said they would like to see perceptions of the network shift.
“The care is excellent,” Bell said. “That’s what we are trying to promote.”
The Fetter team includes doctors, physician assistants and nurse practitioners. There are pharmacists and one dentist on staff. Aretha Jones, the CEO, said an optometrist is on her wishlist. The centers did more than 50,000 visits and employed about 150 people in 2016, according to its most recent tax filing.
Jones said she wants to spread the message that Fetter wants more patients. It has been adding new sites and mobile units to reach more people, especially in Dorchester and Berkeley counties. There is the new Summerville clinic, and another in Moncks Corner. The health center in Cross recently got a new pharmacy.
Jones said after she took the role of CEO in 2016 she, did some house cleaning, hired new staff and tried to build a more professional image for Fetter’s clinics.
“Our goal is to be of the community and to serve the community,” she said. “We have licensed and credentialed providers. We’re looked at as ‘that clinic’ rather than a primary care provider.”
Many of the providers working for Fetter are people who have gotten to a point in their careers where it’s more about mission than money, Jones said.
At the opening of the Summerville clinic, Bell gave a similar impression.
He told the crowd his mother would fill the backyard with junk when he was growing up. She would tell him to fix those things up as favors for their neighbors: a bed frame for one person, a refrigerator for another.
“I come from a lineage of activators and people who gave back,” he said.
The physician founded a nonprofit called Closing the Gap in Health Care more than 10 years ago. Bell began sharing health tips on the radio. Many were aimed at dispelling health myths. Some of the short tips feature a hint of spirituality. They are tailored to the African-American community.
Bell graduated from the Medical University of South Carolina in 1976. He was director at the Office of Diversity there between 1996 and 2004.
Rep. Joseph Jefferson, a Democrat who represents Berkeley and Dorchester counties in the South Carolina Statehouse, said he appreciates Fetter’s care for people in his district without health insurance. And he said Bell has been key in delivering health care to residents of the Lowcountry.
“I know you have been on the road from Charleston to Cross for many years, leaving your family to help those who needed help,” Jefferson said. “We applaud you for that.”
Bell said watching the clinic be named for him was like going to his own funeral and seeing all the people there to celebrate his life.
Bell ended his own speech the way he ends each of his tips: “I’m Dr. Thaddeus John Bell, closing the gap in health disparities for African Americans and the underserved.”
Reach Mary Katherine Wildeman at 843-937-5594. Follow her on Twitter @mkwildeman.