University of Pittsburgh

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Working Dreams

Inspired by his past, Zane Gates serves those most in need.

Written by Ervin Dyer

Gates

Gates

The doctor is running late. He dashes through the hallway with a prescription in hand, then slips into an examination room. Waiting nearby is a 53-year-old mother who once worked in Walmart as an overnight stocker. Like all of doctor Zane Gates’ patients, she does not have health insurance. Before she was referred to his clinic—a tiny suite across the street from a rail yard—she had not seen a doctor for 15 years. Her plight is not unusual for the working poor and those who struggle to make ends meet. Gates understands. He has been there.

He vividly recalls his youth, returning home after school and walking the dimly lit hallway to 309B, the drafty apartment where he lived. The furniture was secondhand, and his clothes had first been worn by others; but he had treasures, too. As he prepared to do homework, his mother, Gloria Gates, would often be in the kitchen, feeding a few neighborhood kids. Later, one or two might be invited to stay overnight, if need be. Every child deserves a chance, she would tell her son, and what truly matters is being able to make other people’s lives better.

This message still nourishes the life of Zane Gates, who recalls many such boyhood afternoons. Though born in Philadelphia, he grew up in Evergreen Manors, a public housing project in Altoona, Pa. His mother walked nearly a mile to work and fed her family with sandwiches left over from the priests for whom she cooked. She would give her neighbors her last $2. Because she lacked full medical coverage, she used spare change to pay for her medicines. Other caring adults pitched in with Christmas gifts, clothes, and years of steady encouragement.

Within this circle of care, Gates set his sights high early on. He aimed to study medicine. “It’s something I always wanted to do, ever since I was 5 years old,” he says. Though he knew it was a long shot for a boy from the projects to become a doctor, Gates still dreamed, and he worked toward his goal.

He started college at the University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown, then transferred to the Pittsburgh campus for a School of Pharmacy degree. When his mother died during his sophomore year, he found support and encouragement from his Pitt peers. It gave him confidence to keep going, ultimately winning admission to Pitt’s medical school. There, he volunteered with Operation Safety Net, a project founded by physician and alumnus Jim Withers (MED ’84) to provide medical care to the homeless.

Gates earned his medical degree in 1995 and, inspired by Withers’ program, the young doctor returned to Altoona where he began traveling to community centers, working from a Ford van to provide free medical care to the poor. Eventually, he settled into the building across from the rail yard.

This year, the free clinic he created, Partnering for Health Services, has a budget of about $300,000 and will serve more than 4,000 patients. The clinic also has a generous partner—Altoona Regional Health System—which writes off the extra costs for laboratory tests and medication. But it is Gates (PHARM ’90, MED ’95) who keeps the clinic’s heart beating; and, in his spare time, the father of four writes medical thrillers.

So far, his clinic has inspired a legislative bill likely to extend free clinic support across Pennsylvania, and a Pittsburgh Steeler is teaming with Gates to reproduce the clinic in rural Mississippi. The doctor’s vision and accomplishments have earned him the honor of being named a Health Hero by WebMD.com.

Still, Gates is not done giving. Recently, he honored the selfless spirit of his mother—an eighth-grade dropout and once almost homeless—by creating an after-school program that serves more than 100 children in three housing projects, including Evergreen Manors. The Gloria Gates Memorial Foundation is a tribute to the woman who shaped his belief that you must forge your own path and help others along the way.

This year, the free clinic he created, Partnering for Health Services, has a budget of about $300,000 and will serve more than 4,000 patients. The clinic also has a generous partner—Altoona Regional Health System—which writes off the extra costs for laboratory tests and medication. But it is Gates who keeps the clinic’s heart beating; and in his spare time, the father of four writes medical thrillers.

So far, his clinic has inspired a bill likely to extend free clinic support across Pennsylvania, and a Pittsburgh Steeler is teaming with Gates to reproduce the clinic in rural Mississippi. The doctor’s vision and accomplishments have earned him the honor of being a WebMD.com Health Hero.

Still, he’s not done giving. Recently, he honored the selfless spirit of his mother—an eighth-grade dropout and once almost homeless—by creating an after-school program that serves more than 100 children in three housing projects, including Evergreen Manors. The Gloria Gates Memorial Foundation is a tribute to the woman who shaped his belief that you must make your own way and then help others.