Marie Ghazal’s first experience working in public health care came when she was still a high school student in Central Falls.
“I had a summer job as a recreation director at a neighborhood park,” she recalled, “and during one of our programs I had the job of giving blood pressure exams.”
Today she’s a leader in the field, serving as CEO of the Rhode Island Free Clinic, a Providence-based nonprofit that provides free, comprehensive health care services to those who might otherwise go without. As a registered nurse and administrator, she spent most of her career working with community health centers, federally funded clinics that work with the state’s poorest residents.
“Marie exemplifies a strong leader contributing to the national dialogue on collaborations, community partnerships and a healthy, robust, cost-effective health care delivery system,” said Loriana De Crescenzo, director of development at the clinic. “She continually looks for opportunity to strengthen … the clinic’s capacity to improve the lives of thousands of uninsured Rhode Islanders.”
Ghazal was born and raised in Central Falls, where her parents, Anthony and Victoria Lazieh, ran a neighborhood grocery store. Both were immigrants, her father from Syria, her mother from Lebanon. Most of the neighbors had roots in the same part of the world. She believes that experience helped steer her toward a career working with communities.
She earned her nursing degree at the University of Rhode Island, graduating in 1977. She then moved to Boston and worked at Massachusetts General Hospital, a path she chose in order to gain experience working with chronic disease. During that time she also picked up a master’s degree in community health at Boston University.
Soon after that she returned to Rhode Island, and became the first nurse researcher with the Pawtucket Heart Health Study at Memorial Hospital. The project follows Rhode Island residents for decades to gather information about cardiovascular health through the course of a lifetime. It was rewarding work, but Ghazal felt restless all the same. She wanted to work more closely with neighborhoods.
She took a step in that direction in 1986, when she became director of the Central Falls Health Center. The clinic, housed in a former tavern, struggled financially. Ghazal secured federal funds that allowed the Central Falls clinic to merge with another in the area to become the Blackstone Valley Community Health Center in Pawtucket. The move solved the financial problems, and kept open a clinic that serves two of the state’s poorest cities.
Ghazal then moved on to the Providence Community Health Centers, the state’s largest network of clinics serving those with limited financial means. For the next two decades she served as vice president of patient care and chief nursing officer. During that time she spearheaded several major programs, including: the operation of the state’s sexually transmitted disease clinic, a school-based health center, a health center for homeless people, a dental clinic for low-income children, a family-planning clinic and other programs.
Ghazal stepped into her current post at the Rhode Island Free Clinic in 2010. “Our mission here is to serve more of the uninsured,” she said, “to help those people get more care and services.”
The nonprofit must meet that challenge with limited resources and a largely volunteer staff, which limits how many can be helped. To emphasize the need, Ghazal describes the clinic’s monthly lottery.
“On the first Thursday, those who hope to become patients come to the clinic to determine if they are eligible,” she said. “They must be uninsured Rhode Island residents with an annual income of $16,335 or below for individuals, or $22,065 or below for couples. They write down their name, drop it in a bucket, and names are drawn. Although all aren’t selected, each month we’re able to serve more and more people.”
To direct more resources toward patients, Ghazal has worked to improve efficiency. Over the past year, there has been a complete reorganization of staff and services, and improvements in the use of electronic health-records systems. There has also been an effort to recruit more volunteer doctors, nurses and other medical professionals, and boost their training. And the clinic continues to develop partnerships with other organizations that share the same mission, including Lifespan, the Warren Alpert Medical School at Brown University, URI and others.
Ghazal is currently enrolled in a new doctorate program at URI that trains high-level nurses to improve health care practice. She is a member of the American Nurses Association, the Rhode Island Public Health Association and the Rhode Island State Nurses Association. She serves on the board of the Rhode Island Quality Institute and the R.I. Medicaid Medical Advisory Committee, and on the advisory board of the Dorcas Place parent literacy center. •