Editor's Note: This story was originally published in the Dothan Eagle's 2020 Progress edition in October.
The building at the corner of Ross Clark Circle and Fortner Street has changed a lot in 40 years – five times to be precise. Its growth is a physical representation of Eye Center South, which has been at the site since 1982. When doctors Marnix Heersink and John Fortin formed their ophthalmology practice in 1980, they quickly outgrew the original downtown Dothan location and moved to the current site.
The building on the site was from the 1970s and once housed an interior design store. Each addition has complemented the former. The original building has all but faded into the current one, but you can see its influence. The tall, narrow columns of windows have carried through to the new façade. The 2017 addition of the new Medical Tower brought a new name for the facility as a whole – Health Center South.
Inside the Eye Center South building, steady streams of patients arrive for appointments with doctors at Eye Center South or procedures in one of the 12 operating rooms at Surgery Center South. The ambulatory surgery center provides outpatient same-day surgery or diagnostic procedures and 23-hour care.
COVID-19 has changed operations some. Staff members are set up at the entry door, wearing masks and gloves as they check temperatures. Plexiglass barriers have been installed at the check-in counters to provide additional protection.
Over the years, Eye Center South doctors have performed more than 200,000 cataract surgeries. Heersink and Fortin both still practice ophthalmology, alongside more than 20 other medical professionals. The group has integrated other specialties, such as optometry, plastic surgery, dermatology, and a hearing center. There’s even an oculoplastic surgeon, Dr. Richard Bryant, who performs cosmetic and reconstructive facial procedures. The surgery center is also used by doctors from other fields who perform outpatient procedures, such as gastroenterology or orthopedics.
Heersink, who is 72, could have retired years ago. But he’s blessed with good health, and he still has great pride in his work. “As long as I have the opportunity to be healthy, I don’t want to hang it up,” he said.
He takes a break between patient appointments at Eye Center South to show off the newest addition to the Health Center South campus – the Medical Tower, a multi-specialty, multi-purpose facility.
The 200,000-square-foot building is five stories high and has a parking garage tucked underneath. It is wired with high-speed fiber optics and high-tech security features. The new building was designed with three focal points: office spaces for medical practices, clinical research, and educational space. The Medical Tower is leasing spaces to doctors and medical practices who would find useful the state-of-the-art equipment and access to the surgery center that’s just next door.
The concept for the tower is a collaboration between Heersink and his son, Dr. Sebastian Heersink, who is also an ophthalmologist. The duo started working on their vision about 10 years ago when Sebastian returned to the Wiregrass. The project broke ground in May 2017 and held its grand opening in May 2019.
The Heersinks’ passions have shaped the concept of the campus – everything from the physical appearance to the activities inside. The mansard roofs on both buildings are an architectural nod to his Dutch heritage. Inside the new Medical Tower, the lobby looks like something you would see in a fancy hotel and not a doctor’s office. That’s intentional – Marnix Heersink wants patients and their loved ones to feel comfortable and at ease when they’re receiving care. A balcony overlooks the lounge space with high wingback chairs, couches, and two large round chandeliers – Heersink gives his wife, Mary, credit for their selection. Space for a café and coffee shop is tucked off the lobby, and an even cozier resting space sits just behind the café.
While most patients may only ever directly interact with the medical practice, they benefit from what’s happening behind the scenes in both the educational facilities and the on-site clinical research.
“We’ve collaborated with universities, companies, even international doctors,” Heersink said. “We’ve been involved with some really good products and lenses for our patients.”
The medical education and conference space in the new tower are unique inclusions, but one that Marnix Heersink says is essential.
“We have to take care of our staff, and even the people who administer to our staff,” he said. “We have to integrate what’s good for patients. When staff is well-trained, patients are better off.”
The Eye Education Foundation hosts around 200 health care professionals at an annual professional development seminar on the Health Center South Campus. The Heersink Family Foundation has partnered with Wallace Community College, Troy University and University of Alabama at Birmingham to offer scholarships as well as learning opportunities both on the school campus and the Health Center South campus.
Wallace Community College’s Health Science Building bears the Heersink family name after a $1.1 million donation for endowed scholarships. The community college’s ophthalmic eye care assistant program is closely affiliated with Eye Center South and holds classes there.
The Heersink Family Foundation partnered with Troy University to fund the Heersink Family Graduate Certificate Program in Health Services Management and to create an endowed scholarship for the new program. The family has also endowed scholarships at the UAB School of Optometry, with preference given to Wiregrass-area students.
“At my stage in life, I’m dedicated and focused on giving,” Heersink said. “It’s a part of my life I didn’t think much about 30 years ago. Our dream is to allow others to have a chance.”
The project is the Heersinks’ long-term commitment to the Wiregrass community that they have called home for more than 40 years.
“We’ve felt at home since day one. It’s a terrific community that continues to grow, and there is always a need for specialty healthcare,” Heersink said. “Good health care is local health care.”