This is part one of a three-part series by August Wallmeyer on issues impacting residents in the “Extremes of Virginia,” based on his recent book.
Part I: Health Care
By August Wallmeyer
The first time I attended a Remote Area Medical (RAM) event in Wise County in far Southwest Virginia, researching for my book The Extremes of Virginia, I quickly learned just how different daily life is for most people in Appalachia. The Wise RAM expedition is a once-a-year three-day-long outdoor clinic where several thousand local folks receive free health and dental care. It’s sponsored by The Health Wagon, the free integrated health care service heavily supported by the Catholic Diocese of Richmond and staffed by a small army of volunteer doctors, dentists, nurses and others.
To the people of Southwest Virginia where poverty and unemployment rates are high, The Health Wagon is essential. While many of us are blessed to have good health insurance that allows us to access health care when we need it, some 400,000 low-income Virginians do not have access to affordable health care. Governor McAuliffe has repeatedly called on the General Assembly to expand access to Medicaid. But beyond Virginia, the U.S Bishops have urged lawmakers to expand care for the nation’s neediest. “Affordable and accessible health care is an essential safeguard of human life and a fundamental human right,” the U.S. Bishops said in Forming Consciences for Faithful Citizenship, no. 80.
People in need of free health and dental care are admitted to the RAM event at the Wise County fairgrounds starting at 7 a.m., but to be sure they get in, many stand in line starting about midnight the night before. Interested to learn more, I stood inside the gate as the first wave of patients flooded in. It was a chilly morning in July in the mountains as I watched, sipping my cup of coffee. A man approached, maybe in his mid 30s, somewhat shabbily dressed, maybe homeless, certainly poor and down on his luck, and asked me, “Mister, where did you get the coffee?” I directed him to a nearby snack table, and then he asked, “Do you need any money for that?” I assured him that he was very welcome to free coffee, and encouraged him to help himself. He stared at the snack table for a moment, then looked back at me and tears (of gratitude? of relief? of embarrassment?) streamed down his face. Because of the gift of a simple cup of coffee, something everyone I know takes for granted every day.
Welcome to Appalachia, to a beginning of understanding how different, how foreign this part of Virginia is to those of us who live in wealthier areas. And welcome to my beginning to understand the mission of The Health Wagon, and how urgently it is needed. And to my gratitude to the late Bishop Walter J. Sullivan, the Catholic Diocese of Richmond and Sister Bernie Kenny.
She was 19, a year out of high school, when Sr. Bernie heard a calling to care for people who were hurting, by providing them health care. She became a Catholic nun, joined the international order of the Medical Missionaries of Mary, serving 10 years in Africa. Eventually, at the request of Bishop Sullivan, the Medical Missionaries began their very first mission in the United States, sending Sister Bernie and two others to Dickenson County in 1978 to answer Christ’s call to care for the sick and the needy.
She found conditions there similar to the Third World African nations she had left: infant mortality was six times greater than Virginia’s average. Young, pregnant women weren’t getting prenatal care. Their nutrition was poor. There was no local hospital.
So Sister Bernie loaded up her 1968 red Volkswagen Beetle and began ministering to the health needs of the locals, puttering from town to town, holler to holler, and when needed driving people to St. Mary’s hospital in Wise county for treatment. That caring, no-cost legacy lives on today as The Health Wagon, a ministry which continues to rely on generous funding from the Catholic Diocese of Richmond and others. In the last two years alone the Diocese, through its annual parish collection for the Health Wagon, contributed more than $250,000. Earlier, with the permission of Bishop DiLorenzo, the Diocese also managed a grant fund which released another $100,000 for the Health Wagon’s new clinic in Wise, and $144,000 for its new roving medical RV.
The Health Wagon is a free nurse managed health clinic now consisting of two stationary and two mobile clinics. The Health Wagon serves some of the poorest people in Virginia and the nation. As Southwest Virginia’s only dedicated safety net clinic, the Health Wagon promotes the mission of providing quality, affordable, accessible care to all with an emphasis on serving the underserved.
Go! Visit! Volunteer at the RAM Wise Health Expedition – the largest of its kind in the nation – on July 20, 21 and 22. Finally, consider supporting The Health Wagon at P.O. Box 7070, Wise, VA 24293 or https://donatenow.networkforgood.org/thehealthwagon. The Health Wagon is registered as a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization. Contributions to the Health Wagon are tax-deductible to the extent permitted by law.
August Wallmeyer, a member of the VCC Management Committee, is a former broadcast journalist, a semi-retired lobbyist, and the president of August Wallmeyer Communications. His book, “The Extremes of Virginia,” can be purchased here.