Local philanthropist Dr. Virgil Elings has given a generous gift of financial support that allows patients without health insurance to have colonoscopy screenings that they would otherwise not be able to afford.

Dr. Elings’ colon cancer was discovered from a colonoscopy when he was 67, and that procedure likely saved his life. Looking back, he wished he had the colonoscopy at an earlier age before cancer developed. He realized he could take action to make colonoscopy screenings available to those who do not have insurance.

In 2008, Dr. Elings made an initial gift of $50,000 to screen 100 patients through Sansum Clinic, in collaboration with the Santa Barbara Neighborhood Clinics. The program has made such an impact that he has continued to support it, and more than 400 people have benefited from his generosity. When it hit 300 screenings, it became the largest free colon cancer screening program on record in the country.

“Colonoscopy is a lifesaving test that allows us to identify and remove polyps before they become cancerous. This is a special story about one patient with means helping many patients in need,” said Dr. John Petrini, gastroenterologist at Sansum Clinic. “It’s always remarkable to see people in our community recognize a need and step up to help their neighbors.”

Excluding skin cancers, colorectal cancer is the third-most common cancer diagnosed in both men and women in the United States. According to the American Cancer Society, on in 20 people are at risk for developing the disease. The number of deaths has been decreasing in recent years due to increased focus on screening and improvements in treatment.

Patients older than 50 who do not have health insurance and would like more information on the free colon cancer screening program, should contact Coleen McBride at the Santa Barbara Neighborhood Clinics at 805.617.7861. Patients who meet certain criteria will be referred through the Santa Barbara Neighborhood Clinics to Sansum Clinic’s Gastroenterology Department.

For more information on Sansum Clinic and its services, or to make a donation to Sansum Clinic, please contact Dru Hartley, director of philanthropy, at 805.681.7726 or dhartley@sansumclinic.org.

— Jill Fonte is the director of marketing for Sansum Clinic.