A New Family Medicine Team in Chelsea

Chelsea teamThis article was featured in our Spring 2014 Update Community Newsletter.

It’s not often you find just the right health care provider to join a clinic and a community. The Chelsea Health Center, remarkably, has two amazing new fits.

Dr. Amanda Hepler and physician assistant Rebecca Savidge, both family medicine providers, have joined the Route 110 health center as long-time physician assistant Starr Strong prepares to retire and family medicine physician Dr. Brian Sargent transitions to full-time emergency care at Gifford.

Rebecca is a Chelsea native. Dr. Hepler has a love of rural medicine.

“Dr. Hepler has a passion for rural primary care and will solely be working at the Chelsea Health Center while Rebecca is a young but experienced physician assistant who is a native of Chelsea and literally ‘grew up’ going to the Chelsea Health Center as a child. She truly understands the community,” notes Dr. Josh Plavin, the Medicine Division medical director at Gifford and a former Chelsea doctor.

Chelsea office manager and nurse Travis Worthen notes that patients are excited to have the duo aboard and to see Rebecca “coming back to her roots.”

Dr. Hepler’s experience, especially with the unexpected that can arise in a rural clinic, such as logging and farming injuries, is especially appreciated.

Both are also kind, thorough and accommodating caregivers, says medical secretary Deb Stender.

Dr. Hepler and Rebecca already see themselves as “a lasting fit” and as a team that both works well together and that hopes to improve care. They will do so by being at the clinic for more hours, meaning more opportunities for care and faster turnaround times on things like medication refills and lab results.

They also both have experience working with electronic medical records and are looking forward to seeing Chelsea make the transition, which will be more seamless thanks to their know-how.

“We are excited to welcome our new providers and announce expanded availability in Chelsea,” Dr. Plavin says. “We have developed a wonderful team, which I hope will be caring for patients in Chelsea for years to come.”

An open house was held Thursday, May 1 from 4-6 p.m. at the health center to welcome Dr. Hepler and Rebecca to the community and to wish Starr and Brian well.

Starr Strong, Dr. Brian Sargent Say Goodbye

Chelsea community welcomes new caregivers

Roger Sargent and Rebecca Savidge

Chelsea Health Center patient Roger Sargent of Tunbridge chats with his new physician assistant, Rebecca Savidge.

The metaphorical passing of the baton at the Chelsea Health Center Thursday afternoon was reminiscent of the perfect race. There was unparalleled effort, emotion and cheers of support.

On Thursday Chelsea welcomed new caregivers Dr. Amanda Hepler and Rebecca Savidge, both family medicine providers, and said goodbye to Dr. Brian Sargent and physician assistant Starr Strong.

Dr. Sargent is transitioning to full-time Emergency Department work, something that will allow him more time for sugaring, pruning apple trees and deer hunting, he said.

Strong is retiring after 21 years.

Ernest Kennedy and Starr Strong

Ernest Kennedy of Chelsea hugs retiring Chelsea Health Center physician assistant Starr Strong. To Kennedy, Strong is more than the local caregiver. She was the dear friend of his daughter Judy Alexander, who lost her battle with cancer on Sunday.

Community-owned, the health center is part of Gifford Health Care. Gifford Medicine Division Medical Director, and former Chelsea doctor, Josh Plavin introduced the outgoing and incoming teams.

Dr. Hepler comes to Chelsea from New Hampshire and, before that, a very rural practice in Maine. She was looking to find that again and has in Chelsea. “It’s been great so far. Everyone’s been very welcoming,” said the warm hearted Dr. Hepler.

“I think you grew up in this clinic,” Dr. Plavin said of Savidge.

“With Dr. Plavin,” she replied, indicating he was her caregiver.

Dr. Josh Plavin and Dr. Amanda Helper

Gifford Medicine Division Medical Director Dr. Josh Plavin introduces new Chelsea family physician Dr. Amanda Hepler.

“Which is not making me feel old at all,” he said.

Savidge practiced in Plainfield before coming home to Chelsea. “I appreciate the community letting me come back to the community as a provider,” she said to the standing room only crowd gathered in the health center’s waiting room.

Savidge thanked Dr. Sargent and Strong for building such an outstanding clinic and acknowledged that she and Dr. Hepler had some big shoes to fill.

Dr. Brian Sargent speaks

The crowd laughs as Dr. Brian Sargent says a warm goodbye to Chelsea patients. He has transitioned to full-time Emergency Department work at Gifford.

“I want to thank you all for trusting me with your care. Like Amanda, I’ve felt very welcome,” said Dr. Sargent who has practiced in Chelsea for five years.

But even for Dr. Sargent, the day was about Strong. “She’s (Strong has) been a joy to work with and a good friend. You won’t find a more compassionate person on the planet,” he said.

“Starr taught me about community,” Dr. Plavin added. “Starr taught me about relationships, as well as medicine, and is really the rock that has been the continuous presence all of this time. Starr is the Chelsea Health Center.”

Starr Strong and Virginia Button

Starr Strong, retiring Chelsea physician assistant, is embraced by patient Virginia Button of Chelsea.

Her patients who were present – and there were many – agreed.

“She’s been my doctor forever,” said Roger Sargent, a Tunbridge resident who has already transitioned his care to Dr. Hepler and Savidge. “I think she (Strong) has a nice lady taking her place, two of them.”

Virginia Button embraced Strong and didn’t let go.

“I’ve been with Starr since she’s been at the health center,” she said, tearing up. “It’s like you’ve lost part of your life.”

Joe Woodin and Starr Strong

Gifford President Joe Woodin and Starr Strong share a laugh.

But Button was optimistic.

“I’m sure the two that are here will fill her shoes,” she said, “eventually.”

Ernest Kennedy gave Strong three hugs. One for himself, one for his wife and one for his daughter, the late Judy Alexander, Strong’s dear friend and a former nurse at the Chelsea Health Center who passed away Sunday and whose loss was felt at Thursday’s gathering.

Kennedy was there to offer his support for Strong, who moved into Alexander’s home during a final days to provide constant vigil, but he wasn’t exactly supportive of Strong’s decision to retire. “She’s not old enough, and we need her.”

Strong disagreed, but not before expressing her thanks for the community’s support.

“I can’t tell you how rich I feel. I’m more grateful than I can tell you. The relationships we have when we go in and sit down and close the (exam room) door; that is a sacred spot.”

She is finally able to step away from those relationships, she says, because she is leaving her patients in the “graceful, beautiful and knowledgeable hands” of Dr. Hepler and Savidge. “It gives me joy in my heart rather than sadness in my soul,” Strong said.

Pioneer Physician Assistant Retires

Starr Strong blazed a new role for 21 years at Chelsea Health Center

Starr Strong

Starr with a baby

Physician assistant Starr Strong retires on May 1 after 21 years at the Chelsea Health Center. Robin Palmer, a former journalist who now does marketing at Gifford, sat down with Strong this week to get her reflections on her career and two decades of commitment to the Chelsea community.

CHELSEA – Starr Strong took a meandering path to health care.

Raised in Connecticut, she studied eastern religion at Beloit College in Wisconsin and went on to travel in India and Nepal and work a variety of jobs, including for a childhood lead prevention program in Massachusetts and counseling troubled teens.

A self-described hippie, wherever she went she found a cabin in the woods to live with her dog, usually with no electricity. She “played pioneer,” she said.

She contemplated a career in social work, but after traveling found herself drawn to a relatively new career – that of a physician assistant.

Despite a complete lack of experience in medicine, as a white person traveling in India and Nepal she was often called upon by villagers to help with illness, she said. “They bring you their wounds. They bring you their sickness. I found that I loved it.”

Duke University had started the first physician assistant program following the Vietnam War for returning medics looking to put their skills to work, Strong recalled. Wake Forest University in North Carolina was one of the schools to follow. Strong entered physician assistant school at Wake Forest in 1979.

Coming home to Vermont

Starr Strong

Starr with a patient in 1996

She came to Vermont in 1981 while in physician assistant school to do what the industry calls a clinical rotation – like an internship – with local ob/gyn Dr. Thurmond Knight and midwife Karen O’Dato. It was not her first experience in Vermont, however.

Strong calls growing up in Connecticut “a mistake.” “I knew that I was so supposed to be here,” she said.

Strong’s family came from Brookfield. As a child they would visit the family homestead several times a year. Strong recalls her mother telling at her the end of one trip when she was 5 or 6 that is time to go home. “But I am home” was Strong’s reply.

Strong is the sixth generation to own that Brookfield property, where she still lives with husband John Button and one of her two children, Dylan, 28. Twenty-four-year-old daughter Maylee lives in Chelsea.

When she first came home to that old farmhouse with no running water, Strong envisioned a job at Gifford in Randolph, but long-time hospital Chief Executive Officer Phil Levesque told her no, repeatedly.

“I knocked on Gifford’s door every year,” said Strong. She repeatedly heard that the Medical Staff just wasn’t ready for a physician assistant, and might never be.

The hospital had just one private practice nurse practitioner affiliated with it at the time. The concept of a physician assistant – now commonplace in the industry – was completely new.

Starr Strong

Starr in 1996

Strong went to work for Planned Parenthood for a dozen years. She worked mostly in Barre doing gynecological exams and talking about birth control. But still she knocked on the door.

The door to Gifford edges open
In early 1993, the door creaked ajar. The hospital agreed to trial Strong in Chelsea a day and a half a week alongside new physician Dr. George Terwilliger, who had replaced retiring physician Dr. Brewster Martin.

Strong was Gifford’s first physician assistant and the first female health care provider at the Chelsea Health Center.

Martin made sure Strong stuck.

“He was incredible,” she recalled. He introduced her around time, advocated for her and he came during many a lunch hour to the Route 110 health center to chat.

The duo formed a mentor-mentee relationship and a strong friendship. They’d save up stories and thoughts to share. They talked about suffering and loss, life and death, and whatever they found funny.

“He was the wisest person I’ve known in my life. It was quite a blessing and I don’t use that word very often,” said Strong.

What she remembers most was that he would ask her thoughts on a subject.

“He gave me confidence,” she said. “I had so much respect for him that him asking me what I thought was enormous.”

Starr Strong

Starr in 2008


Soon Strong was working at other Gifford health centers, including in Bethel, at the student health center at Vermont Technical College, in Randolph and recently in Berlin. Chelsea, however, has been a constant.

She promised Martin she would stay in Chelsea for 20 years. This year marks 21.

Just the right fit in Chelsea
Strong found a home at the Chelsea Health Center.

“Chelsea’s an old time family community and people are fiercely independent and have a lot of pride. If they don’t have anything, it doesn’t matter. It’s down to earth,” Strong said.

For a woman loath to “lipstick and high heels,” it was just perfect.

And like with Martin, she formed relationships there.

“Medicine is not just a science. Medicine is an art and it’s about relationships and it’s about developing relationships with people,” she said.

Those relationships have come with generations of patients and with co-workers like nurse Judy Alexander, who became the closest of friend.

“She just made me laugh. I could call her at 4 o’clock in the morning and she would be at my house at 4:30, and you don’t get that in life often.”

Starr Strong

Starr with friend and patient Judy Alexander in 2012

Alexander is also a patient of Strong’s – a patient who is in the very end stage of terminal cancer. Like so many of her patients, Strong has been at Alexander’s bedside.

“At the beginning of my career, I thought birthing was my ticket and then I took care of a dying person and found that that is really where the juice is,” she said, noting the courage one witnesses in illness and death.

Alexander’s illness and waiting for just the right new providers to join the Chelsea Health Center in her place have in part kept Strong working past that 20 years she promised Martin.

A new chapter
But now she is ready.

Strong is 62, struggles with pain caused from arthritis in her spine and is slowing down. “I don’t have that vitality anymore,” she said.

And she wants to be home. Her husband has been building a new house on that family homestead in Brookfield. “I want to be there to finish it, and have the time to move in.”

She wants to travel and ski and kayak and garden and make stained glass and spend more time with her 95-year-old mom.

She can do all this because of family medicine providers Dr. Amanda Hepler and physician assistant Rebecca Savidge. Like Strong did 21 years ago, they have joined the Chelsea Health Center.

Dr. Hepler comes from Maine and has a passion for rural medicine and Savidge is a Chelsea native. They’re skilled and compassionate and plan on staying for a very long time. Strong couldn’t be happier.

“Once patients meet them, they’re going to love them,” Strong said.

In fact, they’re so great to be around that Strong anticipates a few visits to Chelsea of her own.

“Now I’m going to be the lunchtime girl,” she said, thinking back to those lunches with the retired Martin.

Wish Strong well in her retirement and meet Dr. Hepler and Savidge at a May 1 open house being held from 4-6 p.m. at the Chelsea Health Center that is open to all.

Family Physician with Commitment to Rural Medicine Joins Chelsea Practice

Dr. Amanda Hepler

Dr. Amanda Hepler

Pennsylvania native Amanda Hepler knew from a young age that she would become a doctor.

“Pretty much from when I was very little, I wanted to be a doctor,” says Hepler, whose mother was a radiology technologist and often the go-to person for medical questions.

At Grove City College in Pennsylvania, Hepler studied molecular biology. Medical school at Jefferson Medical College of Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia followed. Her residency in family medicine was at Latrobe Family Medicine Residency, also in Pennsylvania.

When it came time to start work, Dr. Hepler looked for a rural practice and found it at Rangeley Family Medicine in a community of 1,200 in Maine. There for four years, Dr. Hepler was the lone physician, caring for all ages, doing home visits and addressing emergencies as they arose.

From Maine, Dr. Hepler went to work at Cheshire Medical Center, part of Dartmouth-Hitchcock Keene, in New Hampshire. The role meant working in a multi-physician practice, overseeing nurse practitioners and physician assistants, caring for patients in a skilled nursing facility and working to meet quality goals as part of an Accountable Care Organization. It lacked one thing, however: rural roots.

It’s Dr. Hepler’s passion to care for whole families.

“I always pictured myself working in a rural area,” Dr. Hepler said. “Family medicine is called family medicine because you’re supposed to be taking care of a whole family. You can learn a lot more about a person from first-hand experience with a family. You have a true family history.”

Dr. Hepler is now rediscovering her passion for rural medicine as the latest member of the Chelsea Health Center team.

The rural clinic is part of Gifford Health Care and was recently named a Federally Qualified Health Center by the Health Resources and Services Administration, part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

“It just felt right,” says Dr. Hepler of joining the Chelsea team, which includes physician assistant and Chelsea native Rebecca Savidge and physician assistant Starr Strong, a veteran Chelsea caregiver who will soon retire.

Dr. Hepler is board certified by the American Board of Family Medicine and a member of the American Medical Association and the American Academy of Family Physicians.

A kind and compassionate caregiver who quickly creates a relaxing environment, Dr. Hepler works hard to listen to patients, get to know them and help them make the best decisions to improve their health. She has special clinical interests in caring for whole families, women’s health, diabetes management and caring for children.

Dr. Hepler is currently living in Randolph while she searches for a home for her and her dog, Cosmo, closer to Chelsea. (She notes patients have already been helpful and welcoming as they call with leads on rentals.) In her free time she enjoys snowshoeing and hiking with her dog, kayaking, and flower and vegetable gardening.

Dr. Hepler is now seeing new patients. Call her at the Chelsea Health Center at (802) 685-4400.

Chelsea Native Rebecca Savidge Joins Chelsea Health Center

Rebecca Savidge

Rebecca Savidge

Rebecca Savidge grew up in Chelsea, attended the local school and is now the latest health care provider at the Chelsea Health Center.

From her years at the Chelsea Public School, Savidge went on to the University of Vermont where she majored in biology with a chemistry minor. After graduating magna cum laude in 2009, she was part of the inaugural class of the physician assistant master’s degree program at Franklin Pierce University in New Hampshire.

During her schooling, she completed training rotations at medical centers throughout Vermont and New Hampshire, including Gifford, the South Royalton Health Center, Androscoggin Valley Hospital in Berlin, N.H., Central Vermont Medical Center, Cheshire Medical Center in Keene, Little Rivers Health Care in Wells River, The Health Center in Plainfield, and Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center.

Since graduating nearly two years ago, Savidge has worked at The Health Center in Plainfield providing family medicine. She loved the job, but not the drive from Chelsea, where she lives.

A job at Gifford meant not only work close to home, but work at a hospital she respects and in a community she knows well.

“I love that Gifford is a community-based hospital with a range of ancillary patient services and it still feels accessible,” says Savidge, calling the rural medical center both well thought of in the community and among other hospitals.

“Chelsea is a special community because people choose to give back,” she adds. “A huge attraction of working at the Chelsea Health Center is taking care of people you understand and feel connected to.”

Savidge is certified by the National Commission on Certification of Physician Assistants. She has special clinical interest in preventative care, women’s health, chronic care, small procedures and urgent care.

In addition to work in Chelsea, Savidge will work half a day a week in Randolph in the primary care office’s urgent care clinic.

Patients should expect a partner and collaborator in Savidge.

“I like to use shared, informed decision making within a patient-provider team model. Patients active in their care leads to better outcomes.”

In a small community where neighbors are friends, Savidge puts a large emphasis on respecting patients’ privacy.

Savidge is currently building a house in Chelsea with her husband. In her free time she enjoys the outdoors, including cross country skiing, snowshoeing, and pick-up soccer games in town, as well as gardening and reading.

Call Savidge at Chelsea Health Center at 685-4400. The health center, a modern new facility offering family care as well as pharmacy services and mental health, is off Route 110 just north of the village.

“I Am Humbled by the Courage I Witness” – Starr Strong, PA-C

Starr Strong, PA-C

Starr Strong, PA-C

Starr Strong was born in Brookfield and still lives there today. Married to John Button of Chelsea, the couple has two grown children. In her free time, Starr enjoys gardening, skiing, kayaking, and hiking.

Starr has been a physician assistant for 31 years, including 19 years at the Chelsea Health Center as well as at Gifford’s Randolph and Bethel practices and Vermont Technical College’s student health center.

Her greatest love, professionally, is the Chelsea Health Center and the long-term relationships she has forged with generations of families there. At a rural practice, she says, people matter and she is able to spend time with her patients. “It is a privilege in life to make a place your own, to grow a life that is bigger than just yourself,” she says.

Below is her story as told in her own words, as featured in our 2012 Annual Report.

“When I was young, it took me a long time to sort out what I wanted to do with my life. Through traveling and experiments with lifestyles, I discovered a new profession – physician assistant – that appealed to me. It fit my personality (rebellious) and, I hoped, my potential. In 1979 I told my potential educators that I wanted to be a family practitioner in a rural health center. Three decades later, that vision has evolved into a challenging and fulfilling life.

Starr Strong, PA-C

Top left: Strong examines a curious Xabian Bring in 2009. Bottom: A 1996 portrait of Strong reviewing a patient chart with a co-worker.

My family’s ancestral home is a humble hill farm in Brookfield. I’ve known all my life that it is my true home. In 1981 when I was completing physician assistant (PA) school, I met with Phil Levesque, Gifford’s president at the time. He told me that Gifford didn’t have a place for me and he doubted that the Medical Staff would accept a PA in the years to come. I kept knocking on the door, and nearly 20 years ago I got an opportunity to “try it” in Chelsea. I was the first PA at Gifford, the first non-physician provider in Chelsea, and the only woman to practice there.

“The door” in Chelsea was opened to me largely by the gracious support of Dr. Brewster Martin who became my teacher, mentor, advisor, very dear friend, and, eventually, my patient. Brewster was the wisest person I have known and his influence on my life is immeasurable. I promised him that I would practice in Chelsea for 20 years and I am nearly there. During our lunchtime chats we shared the deepest thoughts and concerns in our hearts, and we shared funny stories. It was a privilege to be his friend and I miss him every day.

Family medicine is at least as much about relationships as it is about science. The depth of that trust can be built through years of commitment and listening. I am fascinated by the richness of families and individual’s lives, their dignity and fears, joys and sorrows. I am humbled by the courage I witness, and am grateful for the privilege of such trust.

Just like with Brewster, some of my fondest and most challenging experiences are with those I know best. I especially treasure my relationship with Judy Alexander, a woman who is my patient, friend, and co-worker. She has taught me a lot about humor and the joy of sarcasm, and she strengthens my love of play. Her courage in facing the battle of her life keeps me grounded, humble, and ever so appreciative of the fullness of life. I treasure that we will walk this road together as far as it takes us.

I love this place.”

~ Starr Strong, PA-C
Chelsea Health Center physician assistant

Judy Alexander and Starr Strong

Friends and co-workers Judy Alexander and provider Starr Strong share smiles and laughter.