Scene after floods brought hardship to Clay County, West Virginia in 2016
Category: COVID-19 Resilience & Response

Title:Partnering for Health in Almost Heaven

An ongoing collaboration with a community in West Virginia has provided students in Georgetown’s online master’s degree program in nursing with insight into rural health challenges.

After a devastating thousand-year flood in her home state in 2016, Melody Wilkinson, DNP, professor and director of the Family Nurse Practitioner Program at the School of Nursing & Health Studies, began bringing graduate students there to help and learn from residents of Clay, West Virginia, a former coal mining town.

The partnership continues to grow. Wilkinson returned last year with a group of nine graduate students who had prepared for six weeks before the trip, creating health promotion projects and learning about the needs there. At the end of April 2019 they spent three days in Clay, where they worked at a health fair, picked up trash, painted a building, and spoke to school students about healthy decision-making and substance abuse prevention.

Angela Brown, Clay County Health Department nurse practitioner, welcomed the help from Georgetown students during the health fair. “We wouldn’t have been able to draw blood for 82 people, measure height and weight, and counsel them,” she says.

People in the region are slow to trust newcomers and accept help, Wilkinson says, so “our goal is to slowly build a relationship and increase our footprint in the neighborhood.”

In previous years, the students educated home health aides on how to help their patients. This year, the county health department connected them with two families to visit and bring some healthy food. In one home, a woman who cares for her grandchildren explored how to modify the foods she likes to eat to keep her diabetes in check.

“She said this was the first time someone talked with her about what she liked to eat and helped her talk about recipes, instead of telling her what not to eat,” Wilkinson says.

The group also met with county health officials, the mayor, and local business leaders to discuss the economic and health challenges their town faces. Clay County has almost 11 percent unemployment, more than twice the national rate, and 23 percent of its residents’ incomes are below the poverty rate. The county also has one of the highest opioid addiction rates in the country, which has contributed to more than half of the county’s children being in foster care.

The impact of the immersive education experience is transformative.

“The students are often overwhelmed by the needs of the community. They may see health disparities they have never seen in their own community, and it shapes their view on health care,” Wilkinson says. “I had one student who said she wanted to do concierge medicine, but when we were sitting in this rural community, she began to cry and said, ‘I can no longer do what I thought I wanted to do.’”

Seeing the students grow and being able to give back to her home state has made the trips “my favorite part of my faculty role,” she says. “The trip is physically tiring with very long days, but it’s rewarding to watch students explore their perceptions and watch those perceptions change in real time.”