Dr. Charles Fenzi prepares to retire from his position as CEO, chief medical officer at Santa Barbara Neighborhood Clinics
Lt. jg. Charles Fenzi was serving in the Navy in Vietnam when he saw — in the middle of a war — the miracle of life.
A Vietnamese woman had gone into labor and needed to get to a doctor. Lt. Fenzi brought the woman onto a diesel-powered river patrol boat, which another Navy crew member drove. As they sped away, nature couldn’t wait, and the woman gave birth without the assistance of a doctor.
“The baby was fine and started crying right away,” Lt. Fenzi told the News-Press decades later, referring to the infant’s healthy first breath. “I was smart enough to put the baby on the mother to stay warm. After we sped to the dock, we put the lady in an ambulance.”
The Navy officer, who picked up a book about tropical medicine, had become interested in the health field. And watching the birth in that boat in Vietnam was among the experiences that inspired Lt. Fenzi to become Dr. Fenzi.
He devoted his life to treating patients and has served as both CEO and chief medical officer at the Santa Barbara Neighborhood Clinics, serving low-income and under-insured families and individuals.
“It’s been the best job I’ve ever had,” said the friendly, easygoing physician.
Now it’s time to retire, said Dr. Fenzi, 80, who plans to step down this year once a CEO and a new chief medical officer — the positions will be filled by different individuals — are hired. He expects a new CMO will be hired by this summer.
“It’s probably a good time to find somebody else who can take (the clinics) to the next level,” Dr. Fenzi said.
“My job is ornamental,” he added modestly. “I sit up there on the top of the hood as an ornament. Underneath the hood is the powerhouse. That’s the team that I have and have had good fortune to serve with. They’re mission-driven. They’re very committed.
“I’m very proud of this team that is running the place right now,” Dr. Fenzi said. “We are where we are because of them.
“My job, I think, is to organize the tasks and help them (his team) navigate among themselves, to break down the barriers that might get in their way,” he said. “That’s my style: a team-based approach.”
Dr. Fenzi was born in a mining town: Morenci, Ariz.
After serving from 1966-69 in the Navy during the Vietnam war, he went to the University of Brussels in Belgium, where he graduated with his medical degree in 1978. He completed his residency at a family practice in Stamford, Conn., and moved in 1981 to Roswell, N.M., where he was in a family group practice. After others in the practice left, Dr. Fenzi decided to stay in Roswell, where he practiced family medicine until 2008.
“From there, I was hired by a great big company out of Tennessee to be the liaison with their doctors all over the country,” Dr. Fenzi said. “I did that for a year and half.”
In 2010, Dr. Fenzi and his wife Vera moved to Santa Maria, where he decided he would retire.
At least, he tried to retire.
“For about three weeks, I tried to be a retired guy,” Dr. Fenzi said. “I couldn’t manage it.”
He couldn’t resist the urge to keep practicing medicine.
“I became a substitute doctor in Santa Maria for another year and half,” he said.
Then Dr. Fenzi, who loved to ride his bicycle with his buddies, got a tip from one of them. “One of my bike-riding guys said, ‘They need a doctor at the Neighborhood Clinics. Why don’t you look into that?’ ”
In January 2012, Dr. Fenzi joined the Santa Barbara Neighborhood Clinics as its chief medical officer, and he and his wife moved to Santa Barbara.
The nonprofit’s board was so happy with Dr. Fenzi that in 2015, it asked him to take on a second job, as the clinics’ interim CEO.
“A year later they asked me to put my hat in the ring (for the permanent CEO position),” Dr. Fenzi said. “I said ‘no,’ but they twisted my arm. I said I would do it for five years.
“That time is up,” he said, referring to his retirement.
Dr. Fenzi stressed how much he’s enjoyed his work at the Santa Barbara Neighborhood Clinics and emphasized his pride in how the clinics, which are in Santa Barbara, Goleta and Isla Vista, have grown in their service to the community.
“We’ve grown substantially from the time when I first got here,” he said. “We had 15,000 unique patients. Now we have 22,000 unique patients.”
Dr. Fenzi said the Neighborhood Clinics have expanded from three medical clinics and a dental clinic to eight clinics, including two dental clinics and the Bridge Clinic that the Neighborhood Clinics co-manages with Cottage Health to treat patients diagnosed with substance abuse disorders.
“We have 22 doctors, who make up 11 full-time equivalent positions,” Dr. Fenzi said. “We have three nurses. We would like to have five.”
He noted how the pandemic brought the Neighborhood Clinics further into the era of telehealth. Patients were able to talk to their doctors via secure video conferencing on their smartphones, tablets, laptops or desk computers.
“We had been gearing up to it when the pandemic hit,” Dr. Fenzi said. “Within four days of the shutdown, we were up and running with telehealth. During the lockdown, we allowed people to see us virtually so they wouldn’t have to come inside the office. We also put chairs six feet apart (in the waiting room) and put a screener out front to take temperatures to make sure people didn’t have any symptoms because of COVID.
“We have teledentistry, if you can imagine that,” Dr. Fenzi said.
“One of the stories is here’s this mom, with four boys under the age of five,” he said. “They’re in the house all day. The dentist calls up and says, ‘Can we do a virtual screening?’ She said, ‘That’s fantastic. They’ve been looking for something to do all day.’
“So she lines them up on the bed and gets out her camera. She shows the inside of their mouth to the dentist,” Dr. Fenzi said. “The other thing we did at the time is that if you have gingivitis, your chance of having diabetes is quite a bit higher. We could call people up and say, ‘Have you ever been screened for diabetes?’ ’’
Dr. Fenzi said the Neighborhood Clinics is working to replace its Westside Clinic in Santa Barbara. “We hope to combine the medical, pediatrics, behavioral and dental clinics in one building, across the street from where we are now.
“Our dental program needs to be fully integrated with our medical program, so everybody who sees a dentist will see one of our doctors and vice versa,” Dr. Fenzi said.
“Our new clinics will have behavioral consultation rooms spread out among the exam rooms on the second floor,” he said about the Westside Clinic expansion. “So ideally — and we’ve been experimenting with this already — the behavioral specialist and I go into the same room with the patient at the same time.
“If something comes up when the behavioral specialist might have a role with this patient, for depression or anxiety or whatever, I don’t have to have the conversation, ‘I want you to go see the shrink,’” Dr. Fenzi said. “The shrink is standing next to me. The shrink just takes over.”
A campaign for the Westlake Clinic replacement and the clinics’ operations was designed to raise $20 million by the end of 2020, Dr. Fenzi said. He noted donations exceeded expectations: $22 million was raised.
Dr. Fenzi credited the pandemic for making the clinics aware of what the Westside Clinic needed: wider halls, an expanded waiting room, more private rooms.
He said with the decline in case numbers, the COVID-19 pandemic will likely be classified as an endemic by this summer. “I’m cautiously optimistic.”
Dr. Fenzi, who continued to see patients for most of his tenure as CMO and CEO, said being a good physician boils down to being a good listener.
“One of my old mentors said, ‘If you listen to your patient, they’ll tell you what’s wrong with them,’ ” Dr. Fenzi said. “Being a good listener is really, really important.”
Dr. Fenzi plans to stay involved with the Santa Barbara Neighborhood Clinics after his retirement, mainly with helping with efforts for donations. Dr. Fenzi, who has a 53-year-old daughter and 42-year-old son with his wife Vera, plans to continue riding with his buddies in his bicycle-riding group.
“Before I took this job, I was learning how to sail. I have a tiny little sailboat that’s been sitting in my backyard since I took this job (his CMO position) 10 years ago,” Dr. Fenzi said. “I may get that back out and continue to learn how to sail.”