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For more than half a century, Dr. John Canakaris’ name has been synonymous with health care in Flagler County. At the age of 90, the medical pioneer died Tuesday.
“As one of the first general practice physicians in the Palm Coast area, many consider Dr. Canakaris to be the father of Flagler County’s health care,” said David Ottati, CEO of Florida Hospital Flagler.
In 1950, Canakaris came to Bunnell, which had approximately 4,000 residents in four widely separated communities with only one doctor to provide medical care — and he was in poor health.
The first thing Canakaris did was set up an office in an old frame house on the site of the old post office building on State Road 100, near the traffic light. But the doctor quickly realized that he needed to spend less time in the office and more time on the road. He was summoned to people’s homes to deliver babies, set broken limbs and even perform minor surgery.
The occasional 48-hour stint without a break was not uncommon and 18-hour days were routine. Four years passed like a flash, and the population in Flagler County continued to grow. A facility for emergency and inpatient medical care had become a necessity, so Canakaris opened a five-bed clinic in 1954. One year later, it expanded to 22 beds. Around that time, Flagler County welcomed its first ambulance service — a dual-purpose station wagon owned by a local undertaker. It would be about 20 years before Flagler County would buy its first ambulance.
In 1960, the Bunnell Medical Clinic had grown into a 60-bed medical hospital known as Bunnell General, the first hospital in Flagler County. Canakaris continued to increase medical services in Flagler and built the larger 80-bed Community Hospital of Bunnell, in 1977
Throughout the years, Canakaris made an impact on many young doctors in the county. One of those doctors was Dennis Alter, who met Canakaris in 1992 while working at Bunnell Community Hospital.
“He had just stopped operating,” Alter recalled. “Before that, he did it all, the gynecology, orthopedics and general — he was a doctor of all trades.”
Alter’s respect for Canakaris grew into a friendship and mentorship.
“He’s a pioneer,” Alter said. “As a surgeon, you deal with all kinds of situations and must have the confidence. He was it. He dealt with it, and did the best he could and that’s incredible considering the vast array of stuff he had to do.”
When remembering back to the first couple years he knew Canakaris, Alter recalls sitting in back room of the hospital, which served as a cafeteria. At the end of the table was a padded chair with a plaque on it. It was a chair donated to Canakaris for his service to the community.
“No one would dare sit in his chair,” Alter said. “Occasionally, a new person would come in and sit there, and people would tell them they had to move and that was the cue that they must be new around here.”
Though he officially retired in 1999, Canakaris could still be found in and out of his Bunnell office several days each week. He was a huge supporter of the new Florida Hospital Flagler facility, which was built 10 years ago. He served on the board of the Florida Hospital Flagler Foundation and was named Humanitarian of the Year in 2006 by the Florida Hospital Memorial Foundation. In 2005, after several years of retirement, Canakaris joined with Faith Coleman and Dr. Don Alfonso to open the Flagler County Free Clinic, which is still in operation, in Bunnell.
“He’s a man that’s made a mark, and we all want to make marks,” Alter said. “Our time on this earth is short and we want to make a difference in people’s lives. When we pass on, we want to leave our area better than it was when we came, and he did that ... To make an impact on the world — what a great thing he has accomplished. We all need to try to do the same.”
In his official statement, Ottati said: “Dr. Canakaris has certainly contributed to the heritage of Flagler County’s health care. His contributions are exemplary and inspiring to generations.”
Canakaris is by his survived by his wife of 35 years, Georgia Canakaris; two children and three grandchildren. In lieu of flowers, donations in his memory may be made to Flagler County Free Clinic.