July 15, 2019 - 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 within this part of the country.

“This is really small town with two stop signs and no stop lights in the whole county. Historically, it was a coal-mining town. As the mines closed, it’s experienced tremendous decline. There isn’t a sustainable industry, so the economic challenges of the communities are tremendous,” says Melody Wilkinson, DNP, APRN, FNP-BC, FAANP, director of the Family Nurse Practitioner Program at the School of Nursing & Health Studies.

Two Georgetown students work at a outside table at a health information session

Three years ago, the town experienced a “thousand-year” flood, which spurred Wilkinson, who grew up in West Virginia, to take a small group of graduate nursing students to the town to do service work and health education for several days between class sessions. The severe needs of the community continue, and so has the partnership. Since it began, students in the Family Nurse Practitioner and Nurse-Midwifery/Women’s Health Nurse Practitioner Programs have taken part.

This year, Wilkinson returned with a group of nine students who prepared intensely for six weeks before the trip creating health promotion projects and learning about the needs there. They then spent three days in Clay at the end of April, where they worked as nurses during a community health fair, spoke to middle and high school students about healthy decision-making and substance abuse prevention, and picked up trash and painted a vacant building to prepare it for a mural.

Developing Trust

Angela Brown, Clay County Health Department nurse practitioner, and the other six staff welcomed the extra help from Georgetown nursing students in drawing blood during the health fair. “We wouldn’t be able to draw blood for 82 people and have time to measure height and weight and counsel them,” she says. “We’re definitely welcoming them any year they’re willing to come.”

Georgetown students hold up arts and crafts signs that each say Hoya

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.”

For example, 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 they could meet with and deliver some healthy food. The students talked with a grandmother who cares for her grandchildren about 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 had private meetings with the county health officials, the mayor and local business leaders, to discuss the economic and health challenges their town faces. The county 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. 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, according to a regional economic development agency

Changing In ‘Real Time’

“The students are often overwhelmed by the needs they experience. 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.’ That’s the impact of education.”

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. “It’s very long days and physically tiring, but it’s best to watch students really explore their perceptions and watch those perceptions change in real time.”

-Kathleen O’Neil, GUMC Communications. Photos are from 2018 and 2019.