Still caring after nearly 10 years
By Phyllis Moore
Published in News on October 29, 2008 1:46 PM
Family nurse practitioner Ann King examines Paige Newcomb inside the WATCH -- Wayne Action Teams for Community Health -- Mobile Medical Unit on Tuesday.
The WATCH mobile medical van travels around the county, providing services for the uninsured.
Sissy Lee-Elmore recalls pouring over a dictionary in her office trying to come up with a catchy acronym for a new service being introduced for residents without health insurance.
She knew it should contain a "W" for Wayne County, and the words "community health" had to be part of it.
That was 10 years ago, and WATCH -- Wayne Action Teams for Community Health -- has gone from being a concept to providing a much-needed service for residents, said Ms. Lee-Elmore, its director.
The most visible aspect is the mobile van that began traversing the county Aug. 1, 2000. To date, it has logged 1,897 site visits, registered 8,196 patients and made 47,930 patient visits.
"To have a population of 115,000, you have 20,000 uninsured. Eight years ago there was nowhere for them to go for those services," she said.
Dr. Clark Gaither of Goldsboro Family Physicians, medical director for the program, recalls what it was like before WATCH took its efforts on the road.
"In Wayne County, you could find services for children, but if the parents were sick, how could you get the children to health care? You had to have healthy parents to have healthy children," he said.
The driving force behind WATCH, he said, was an avid interest in community health.
Mrs. Lee-Elmore was already employed at Wayne Memorial Hospital, which wanted to delve into community initiatives and to improve the health outcomes of residents, she said.
"Basically me and Jana Blackman (of health promotions) traveled up and down the East Coast to see what everybody else was doing," she said.
The first public meeting here was held in May 1997, she said.
"We invited 100 people from the community, just basically trying to ask if there were other people in the community that wanted to work with us in improving the health of the community," Mrs. Lee-Elmore said.
Murray Porter was at those initial meetings. He was chairman of the hospital board then and later served as WATCH board chairman.
"We had the chief of police, sheriff, county commissioners. I think the mayor was there. People from all over the community, and everybody in that room felt that this was a good idea," he said. "A lot of the credit I give to the hospital. They pushed very hard. ... When we talked about putting WATCH together, we discussed, 'What can we come up with to improve the health of everybody in the county?'"
In the spring of 1998, 10,000 surveys were sent out, Mrs. Lee-Elmore said, with 1,408 returned. The survey helped launch the action phase, including the mobile unit.
From the outset, the program featured four main components, Mrs. Lee-Elmore said -- a Teen Pregnancy Task Force, Substance Abuse Task Force, Healthy Behaviors Task Force (now Stoney Creek Park Alliance) and Access to Care.
When the first grant for the program came in -- $220,000 from the Kate B. Reynolds Charitable Trust -- it was time to promote the concept to the public.
Billboards went up around the county, asking, "What's WATCH?" and explaining its premise.
The funding allowed for an additional staffer to join Mrs. Lee-Elmore -- Rosa Tuckson, who still handles administrative duties for the program.
With the addition of the van, nurse practitioner Kathy Johnson became the third employee. Other positions added since have included a pharmaceutical agent, health educator and medical office assistant.
While much of the budget comes from grants and the annual golf tournament -- in its ninth year and which, to date, has raised $300,000 from the community -- local funding has also gained momentum from the county commission and city council.
For the past six years, Quest Laboratories has also donated lab services for the program at no cost.
But the value of WATCH's contribution to the community would be difficult to tally.
"The life years that have been added or saved, you would have a hard time calculating what that would be," Gaither said. "It has been a tremendous asset in terms of health care in our community. A lot of communities don't have a free clinic or if they do, it's not as big as ours. Best we can tell, we have covered one-third of the lives in our county."
The idea of a free clinic taking care of people who couldn't take care of themselves has been a blessing, Porter said.
"It's come a lot further along and done a lot better job than I ever dreamed," he said. "I'm just terribly excited. It's amazing how many people it's touched and how many people it's helped. ... Initially I don't think any of us knew exactly how we were going to improve the health (of this county)."
It has taken the collaborative efforts of many -- people like Bill Paugh, hospital president, who was on the advisory board from the beginning, and now-retired physician Dr. Joseph McLamb, an avid organizer of the golf tournament credited with enlisting support from the medical community.
Not to mention volunteers who have kept the program afloat, and who will always be needed.
"I certainly hope to keep this ball rolling," Gaither said. "I don't know what would replace what's currently being done."
Neither does Ms. Johnson, nurse practitioner for more than six years -- there the first day WATCH started seeing patients until she moved to Iowa to be closer to family in Oct. 2006.
"I could go on and on for hours" about WATCH, she said. "As the economy gets worse and worse ... people get left out if they don't have insurance."
She takes pride in having served those who really needed what WATCH offered.
"For me to be able to walk in and have everything set up by the community -- the truck was there, Dr. Gaither was there, the board was there, it was an opportunity of a lifetime, certainly something I will never forget," she said.
What she also holds dear, she added, is how appreciative the patients were.
"I'm working now in, it's still rural USA, but when people have more, they have more expectations, and I think those people (then) had no great expectations," she said. "The people were just so warm and friendly. And the whole staff, we really worked together and all wanted the same thing -- to serve the people and that was so rewarding."
Since February, Ann King has taken on the role as nurse practitioner. At a recent board meeting, Mrs. Lee-Elmore announced there are also plans for an additional nurse to be added so the hours of operation can be expanded.
Replenishing the pool of volunteers is another of Dr. Gaither's hopes.
"If anybody's looking for a project or a mission, charity begins at home," he said. "We could certainly use their help and would certainly put them to work."
The success of WATCH can be measured in many ways, the doctor said -- getting someone's blood pressure under control, identifying and treating diabetes or preventing a life-threatening illness.
"Everybody can share that piece of those victories and we have them on a daily basis," he said. "It's a wonderful thing."
But there are also countless numbers who have rotated through the clinic who are no longer seen, he notes.
"Either they have acquired coverage or found a job and got insurance and then were able to move on into a physician's office," he said. "This has been a perfect bridge for a lot of folks to get the care they need while they were waiting to qualify for other services."
For more information about WATCH or to volunteer, call Mrs. Lee-Elmore at 731-6635.
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