Turning Points medical director waging hepatitis C war

Turning Points’ new medical director, Dr. Ron Cirillo, second from left, speaks with, from left, Alejandro Vazquez of Lake Erie College of Osteopathic Medicine, Caleb Streitmatter of Riverview High School and Cassidy Nern of Sarasota Military Academy.
Turning Points’ new medical director, Dr. Ron Cirillo, second from left, speaks with, from left, Alejandro Vazquez of Lake Erie College of Osteopathic Medicine, Caleb Streitmatter of Riverview High School and Cassidy Nern of Sarasota Military Academy. rdymond@bradenton.com

On the night of Jan. 25, there were 497 homeless people counted in Manatee County and 971 in Sarasota County.

This 24-hour “Point-in-Time” survey by the Suncoast Partnership to End Homelessness showed that the overall number of homeless grew from 2015 by 207, with 201 more people in Manatee County and 69 more in Sarasota County.

These numbers deeply trouble Dr. Ronald Cirillo, the new medical director of Turning Points, Manatee’s health care clinic at The One Stop Center Building, 701 17th Ave. W. in Bradenton, where people with no means of support can go for medical care.

It stems from Cirillo’s background. He is a liver doctor, a hepatologist. He also specializes in gastroenterology, the stomach and digestive system. He practiced both specialties for 30 years in private practice in Stamford, Conn. But it is the liver that Cirillo talks about the most.

He often talks about hepatitis C, an infection caused by a virus that attacks the liver.

“The liver is the organ that filters the body’s waste materials, and if it gets damaged through Hepatitis C, it clogs up and that impacts everything else inside the body,” Cirillo said in his conference room Wednesday. “I would estimate that the percentage of homeless people in Manatee County who have hepatitis C is 30 percent and climbing.”

Cirillo, who started his job at the end of April, said last week that homeless people are particularly vulnerable to hepatitis C.

“I think it is a combination of factors,” he said. “There are a lot of patients who were exposed to drug abuse at one point of their lives or currently. Hepatitis C is rampant among drug users. If they had trauma years ago and got a transfusion, they may have gotten the virus that way. Besides sharing needles, there is sharing blood products. There is also hygiene. The way people live on the street is conducive to transmit hepatitis C.”

Cirillo is determined to wage war against this virus because the ammunition to defeat it and get homeless people out of its grasp is readily available now.

“We have at our fingertips today medications that can eradicate hepatitis C within the homeless population, which is rampant,” Cirillo said. “The hepatitis medicines today are 94 to 95 percent effective where as years ago we didn’t have that.”

Hepatitis C medication that costs roughly $100,000 for a 12-week cycle has been provided free to Turning Points, Cirillo said.

“We have that here, free,” Cirillo said. “The treatment is not horrible as it once was. It was injections; now it is an oral pill. To eradicate hepatitis C among the indigent population is one of my primary goals here.”

Cirillo urges homeless people to come into clinic and be tested for hepatitis C.

Turning Points also has clinics for diabetes, lung diseases, dental and, soon, for eyesight.

“So many patients in Manatee County have a great need,” Cirillo said. “We really need even more clinics like this in Manatee.”

Part of Cirillo’s job is to work with medical and pharmacy students who come to Turning Points to get experience while helping indigent patients.

“He’s amazing,” said fourth-year pharmacy student Jennifer Thrall, who attends the Lake Erie College of Osteopathic Medicine, of Curillo. “Dr. Curillo is interactive and he really cares, not only about his patients but he is interested in helping us learn.”

Calm under pressure

Despite the pressures he feels to help the needy, Cirillo laughs easily. He learned his craft at SUNY Downstate Medical Center, Kings County Hospital in Brooklyn, N.Y., and Lutheran Medical Center.

He did a fellowship at Rutgers University in New Jersey and at The University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey in Newark.

After spending 30 years in private practice he retired to Florida, where he discovered retirement wasn’t for him and went back to work as a physician for the Department of Veterans Affairs.

“I did that for two years in Tampa and was overwhelmed by all their paperwork and rules, but enjoyed it and felt I was giving back,” Cirillo said. “I liked working with the soldiers who had come home disabled and needed my help.”

He was encouraged to apply for the open medical director job at Turning Points by a Turning Points’ staff member who lived in the same Manatee County community where Cirillo lives.

“She said, ‘Gee, we need someone with your expertise, so speak to them,’ ” Cirillo said. “I did. I met our clinic director, Jill Hinman, and immediately knew I would be comfortable at this center.”

“What I like about the position here is that along with helping the patients, I get to work with fourth-year students and medical residents and nurse practitioners,” Cirillo said. “Teaching is something I have always enjoyed. Lecturing, training, all of that is fun. But the real reason I was hired here was because of my expertise in hepatitis and gastroentrology.”

Richard Dymond: 941-745-7072, @RichardDymond