It has been 50 years since Robert F. Kennedy toured over 300 miles through the destitute towns of Appalachia, discovering and spreading the truth behind the 1964 war on poverty. It has been 40 years since Sr. Bernadette “Bernie” Kenny made her way to those same rolling hills of Southwest Virginia, finding a purpose and leading her mission to heal the people of Appalachia.
“She made her way through the area in the 1980’s, when the concept of nurse practitioners was very foreign. She saw the need and she saw people hurting, so she came and she did something about it. Even saying she’s a hero does not describe it,” said Dr. Paula Hill-Collins. She serves as the clinical director at the Health Wagon, a nonprofit organization founded by Sr. Bernie.
Sr. Bernie grew up in Boston and entered the order of the Medical Missionaries of Mary in 1957. She spent five years in Ireland completing her original nurse and midwifery training in our Lady of Lourdes hospital. After returning to the U.S. for a short time, she went on to serve in Tanzania for 10 years as a midwife delivering babies, then moved to Southwest Virginia in 1978 by request of the Richmond Diocese.
“I was frustrated because of legislation and regulations,” Sr. Bernie said. “So, I went to school to train as a nurse practitioner, and that’s when I thought about a mobile unit. Before that, I had been visiting patients in homes and used a Volkswagen Bug to carry around supplies and whatever medications I could.”
Her vision turned into a reality in 1982, when the Health Wagon was officially founded as a single mobile unit, traveling through small towns to community locations and even providing care in families’ backyards to the medically underserved populations of Southwest Virginia.
“We are now broadening the concept of health,” Sr. Bernie said. “The healing touch inspires people to make big changes that often have to happen in the person’s life, and also in their family’s lives.”
From preventative care, women’s health, and chronic disease management (the list goes on), to parenting classes, economic health, and even technical education, the Health Wagon has become an invaluable lifesaving resource across the five main counties it serves, and beyond. Last year alone, the Health Wagon managed close to 14,500 patient encounters through their programs.
“We feel that we are only reaching the tip of iceberg – the need here is phenomenal as health care needs outstrip available resources” explained Dr. Teresa Tyson, Executive Director of the Health Wagon. “It is a poor resource area with a lot of poverty. Sometimes it’s hard to believe that healthcare disparities of this proportion are occurring in the United States. We see the brokenness of humanity here daily at the clinic.”
In 2014 the Health Wagon expanded to include two mobile units and one stationary clinic. 2015 followed with an innovative undertaking, as the first FAA-approved drone medication delivery was accomplished in a joint venture with Remote Area Medical (RAM). Then in 2016, the Health Wagon team completed the first telemedicine bladder cancer screening in the world, performed as a joint venture with the University of Virginia. 2017 wrapped up with the first Army Readiness Training event in Virginia, as well as the addition of veterinary services.
“It’s been phenomenal,” Tyson said. “We keep adding resources that we did not have before.”
The Health Wagon continues to participate in and host several RAM events each year, where Sr. Bernie can be found volunteering her time and services. “I’m still learning, that’s for sure,” she said.
As Sr. Bernie approaches her 80th birthday – a milestone of her own – the Health Wagon is preparing to celebrate a milestone of their own, in her honor. They are set to open another stationary clinic – to be named the Sr. Bernie Kenny Clinic – funded primarily by an Appalachian Regional Commission grant.
This clinic will host several of the organization’s growing initiatives, such as vision care, telemedicine, and the application of diagnostics through the use of a new ultrasound machine (donated by Philips Foundation through a partnership with RAD-AID). Tyson hopes that these new programs can service widespread needs such as diagnostic testing, prenatal ultrasounds and diabetes care, among others.
Hill-Collins and Tyson, who have been friends since just 14 years old, both grew up in southwest Virginia and have seen the ebbs and flows of poverty and medical care in the area. “What hurts me the most,” Hill-Collins said, “is that on this anniversary of the war on poverty, we can tell you that things are worse now than when we were children in the 70’s.”
“We want to be the hands of Christ in some small way,” Tyson said. “Paula [Hill-Collins] and I found mission work right here in our backyard. We’ve had some wonderful influences in our lives – but Sr. Bernie is our mentor. She taught us firsthand about social justice and we are forever indebted. As two Appalachian women, we will be able to carry that on into the future.” ♦