Gifford’s 2014 Highlights: July – September

The following article appeared in our 2014 Annual Report.

July

Gifford concert seriesThe White River Valley Chamber of Commerce and Gifford once again partner to offer concerts and now a farmer’s market on Tuesday evenings throughout the summer in the Gifford Park. Two community barbecues — one by Stagecoach and one by the Randolph Center Fire Department — also draw a crowd.

podiatrist Dr. Samantha HarrisPodiatrist Dr. Samantha Harris joins the Gifford Health Center at Berlin, providing full spectrum surgical and non-surgical podiatric care.

Gifford’s midwives hold an open house to introduce their new team to the community.

August

Dr. Kenyatta NormanAfter working at Gifford since January as a locum tenens physician, orthopedic surgeon Dr. Kenyatta Norman makes her position permanent.

A “Heartsaver CPR” certification course is offered to the community.

Last Mile RideJP’s Flea Market, formerly the Randolph Antique and Artisans Fair, is held in the Gifford park on Aug. 9. Cars line the street looking for deals and meals.

The ninth annual Last Mile Ride raises a record $60,000 for end-of-life care. This year’s event is spread over two days and attracts a record 386 Sue Schoolcraftparticipants.

Sue Schoolcraft of Randolph gains media recognition statewide for her work to make personalized quilts for Menig residents. Her work is supported by the Last Mile Ride.

ob/gyn Dr. Sean TubensOb/Gyn Dr. Sean Tubens joins the Gifford Ob/Gyn and Midwifery team from his hometown of Baltimore, bringing total laparoscopic hysterectomies to Gifford for the first time.

September

Dr. Melissa ScaleraDr. Melissa Scalera, an Ob/Gyn, joins Gifford’s women’s health team, providing complete gynecologic and obstetrics care in Randolph.

Colorado couple, sports medicine physician Dr. Nat Harlow and family nurse practitioner Christina Harlow, join Gifford’s Sharon sports medicine and Randolph primary care practices respectively. Dr. Harlow is fellowship trained. Christina holds a doctor of nursing practice degree.

Dr. Jeff LourieFamily nurse practitioner Jeff Lourie joins the Gifford Health Center at Berlin.

Project Independence of Barre officially merges with Gifford.

American Health Centers Inc. Sponsors Gifford Last Mile Ride

Mobile MRI provider donates $2K to annual fundraiser for end of life care

American Health Center donation for Last Mile Ride

Director of Ancillary Services Pam Caron, Gifford Administrator Joseph Woodin, AHCI President and Chief Operating Officer Dr. Donald N. Sweet, and Radiologist Jeffrey Bath, M.D.

American Health Centers Inc. (AHCI) has donated $2,000 to the Last Mile Ride, Gifford’s annual fundraiser to support services for those with advanced illness or needing end-of-life care.

AHCI brings affordable mobile magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) units to community hospitals throughout Vermont, New Hampshire, and Massachusetts. MRI is a safe and painless test that uses a magnetic field and radio waves to produce detailed pictures of the body, and differs from a CAT scan because it doesn’t use radiation. The AHCI mobile magnetic unit serves patients at Gifford health centers in Randolph, Sharon, and Berlin.

“American Health Centers has been bringing services to Gifford patients since 2001,” said President and Chief Operating Officer Dr. Donald N. Sweet, who visited the hospital to deliver the donation. “We are very pleased to be able to honor this partnership by supporting the unique end-of-life services funded by the Last Mile Ride.”

“We are so grateful to have AHCI’s sponsorship in this 10th anniversary year of the Last Mile Ride,” said Gifford Director of Development Ashley Lincoln. “Funds raised this year will support the construction of a second Garden Room suite for patients and their families, and help us to expand access to special services that comfort those in life’s last mile.”

Gifford’s Last Mile Ride is an annual weekend fundraiser that supports special end-of-life services: a session for family photographs, massage, Reiki, or music therapy to help with relaxation and pain management; or funds to make one final wish come true. This year the 1-mile walk, and a timed 5-k run will be on Friday, August 14; the motorcycle and bike rides will be on Saturday, August 15. Learn more or register at www.giffordmed.org.

Gifford’s 2014 Highlights: January – March

The following article appeared in our 2014 Annual Report.

January

Gifford's first baby of 2014The first baby of the year is born to Casandra Perry of Bethel. Baby Bryden is welcomed on Jan. 2 at 3:48 a.m.

A “Matters of the Heart” series is offered monthly all year long for heart patients, or anyone looking to improve his or her heart health. Also offered: Chronic Conditions Support Group, Caregiver Support Group, Diabetes Group Education Classes, childbirth classes, and a new Mood Disorder Support Group.

A “Quit In Person” tobacco cessation class helps those addicted to smoking or other tobacco products to quit.

A “Chronic Pain Healthier Living Workshop” is offered at the Randolph House. The six-week free series addresses coping with chronic pain.

Alison WhiteExperienced nurse leader Alison White joins Gifford as vice president of patient care services – a role that oversees the Hospital Division, including inpatient care, the Birthing Center, Ob/Gyn and Midwifery, the Emergency Department, Menig nursing home, and Adult Day Program.

After considerable input from providers, staff, and clergy, the Gifford board passes a policy implementing the Patient Choice at End of Life law. The policy allows willing primary care providers to prescribe lethal prescriptions but prohibits use of such prescriptions in the hospital setting.

February

An educational event shares Gifford’s “Vision for the Future” with Corporators. The vision focuses in part on constructing a senior living community in Randolph
Center.

Gifford Medical Center AuxiliaryThe Gifford Medical Center Auxiliary awards $19,000 to various Gifford departments, including equipment for inpatient units, pulse oximeters for primary care offices, play equipment and furniture for The Robin’s Nest Child Enrichment Center, and a handheld scanning device for Materials Management.

Dr. Robert CochraneExperienced hospitalist Dr. Robert Cochrane joins Gifford’s hospitalist (inpatient care) team.

An “Infant and Child CPR” class helps new parents and families learn lifesaving techniques.

A “Home Alone and Safe” course teaches children 8-11 how to respond to home alone situations.

March

A “Babysitter’s Training Course” is held for area pre-teens and teens seeking greater expertise in safe child care.

Dr. Michael ChamberlandChiropractor Dr. Michael Chamberland joins the Sharon Health Center sports medicine team.

A “Healthier Living Workshop” series begins, providing the chronically ill free information on improving their health.

A second “Quit In Person” tobacco cessation class is held, this time at the Gifford Health Center at Berlin.

Vermont Health ConnectGifford’s Health Connections office and Blueprint for Health team partner with Bi-State Primary Care to offer free help signing up for Vermont Health Connect. Help is available each weekday, but on March 6 and March 13 extra “navigators” come to Gifford to help even more people sign-up in advance of a March 15 deadline.

Diabetes Education ExpoGifford’s annual Diabetes Education Expo is merged with a Health Fair for all chronically ill and offered on March 14.

Gifford holds its 108th Annual Meeting of its corporators, announcing achievements of 2013, unveiling a new video about Gifford, and hearing a special presentation from Green Mountain Care Board Chairman Al Gobeille. Corporators elected Matt Considine of Randolph to the board and re-elect Lincoln Clark of Gifford corporatorsRoyalton. Grants were announced, including $25,000 in William and Mary Markle Community Foundation funds to 10 area towns’ schools to support exercise and healthy eating programs. The Philip D. Levesque Memorial Community Award, in memory of Gifford’s late president, is awarded to the Orange County Parent Child Center.

Gifford staff raise $520 for the March of Dimes by wearing “Blue Jeans for Babies”.

April VanderveerGifford’s mammography and nuclear medicine departments earn three-year, national re-accreditations from the American College of Radiology.

Certified nurse-midwife and women’s health nurse practitioner April Vanderveer joins Gifford’s 24-hour midwifery team.

A Message from the Medical Staff President Dr. Ellamarie Russo-DeMara

The following article appeared in our 2014 Annual Report.

Medical Staff President Dr. Ellamarie Russo-DeMara

Medical Staff President Dr. Ellamarie Russo-DeMara

As president of the Medical Staff I have witnessed firsthand the hard work and dedication not only of our medical team, but of all those behind the scenes who make Gifford a place where patients are a priority.

With economic and healthcare issues front and center in our daily news, it’s reassuring to work for an organization that is fiscally stable without sacrificing quality of care. I know I speak for the entire health care team when I say how fortunate we are to have our new FQHC designation, which will allow us to provide much needed dental and mental health services to our community.

Gifford continues to lead the way in its vision for the future of providing quality care for our community. At the forefront of that vision is the creation of a new Senior Living Community, where our seniors can be cared for in a home-like setting.

As part of this process we are fortunate to be able to “rejuvenate” our existing space into private, more comfortable rooms that will allow us to improve the efficiency and quality of the care we offer our patients.

It has been an exciting year of planning and creating new ways to provide access to the high-quality care we offer through all stages of life—from newborn through to nursing home resident.

Barre Serviceman Comes Home to Motorcycle Prize

Medic won Gifford’s Last Mile Ride Harley Davidson Raffle while Serving in Afghanistan

Cody Flanagan

From left to right, Wilkins Harley-Davidson owner Barbara Wilkins, co-owner John Lyon, Tim Flanagan, Vermont Lt. Governor Phil Scott, Gifford Administrator Joe Woodin; front: Cody Flanagan

When specialist Cody Flanagan, a medic with the U.S. Army 82nd Airborne Division, arrived home on holiday leave Sunday, a visit to Wilkins Harley-Davidson in Barre was high on his list of things to do.

He’d been waiting since August to climb onto the seat of a shiny new Harley Sportster 48, the raffle prize from Gifford Medical Center’s Last Mile Ride, an annual fundraiser to support patients in advanced illness or at the end of life.

Cody knew the bike well: his dad had taken him riding on the same model when he was a kid, and he’d posed with it for his senior photo in the Spaulding High School yearbook.

But he was surprised by a crowd the Wilkins family had gathered to welcome him in style on Tuesday afternoon. Gifford staff and volunteers, Wilkins staff, and even Vermont’s Lt. Governor Phil Scott cheered and enjoyed pizza and cake.

“Community support like this is really nice,” Cody said. “A surprise party was not expected!”

Last August he’d been in Afghanistan just a month, and was dealing with the recent loss of a battalion team member. Back home his father, Tim Flanagan, a respiratory therapist at Gifford, purchased four raffle tickets the night before participating in Gifford’s Last Mile Run.

“I bought four tickets and put two in Cody’s name,” Flanagan said. “The odds were 4 in 100 for a win, so I called him in Afghanistan to see if he would want the cash or the bike if we won.”

Cody wanted the bike, and when his name was pulled at the raffle drawing, one family’s joy rippled through to everyone witnessing the event.

“It really was an emotional moment,” says Linda Chugkowski, a Gifford board member who has done the Last Mile Ride for seven years. “Tim could hardly speak when Cody’s name was pulled— as the story moved through the crowd, people started clapping and then rose in a standing ovation. Tears were coming down all the faces.”

Tim Flanagan says it was a storybook ending. “It was meant to be. Now it’s so nice to have him home and safe. We can all sleep– we don’t have to worry about getting any calls.”

Gifford’s Last Mile Ride has grown to a two-day event that includes a timed 5K, one-mile walk, 38-mile cycle ride, and 80-mile motorcycle ride. Money raised at the ride goes directly to help patients with comfort measures, provides financial support to patients and families, and grants special wishes.

The 10th annual Last Mile Ride will be August 14 and 15, 2015. For more information, please contact Ashley Lincoln at alincoln@giffordmed.org.

Last Mile Ride Raises $60,000

Last Mile Ride

Runners take off for the Last Mile Ride 5K and walk on Friday at Gifford in Randolph. (Provided/Janet Miller)

Fueled by compassion, 154 runners and walkers, 201 motorcyclists and 38 cyclists gathered at Gifford Medical Center on Friday and Saturday for the Last Mile Ride, raising $60,000 for area residents in life’s last mile.

Now in its ninth year, the Last Mile Ride has grown to a two-day event that includes a timed 5K, one-mile walk, 38-mile cycle ride and 80-mile motorcycle ride. The annual event raises money for Gifford patients in and out of the hospital who are in advanced illness or at the end of life. Money raised at the ride goes directly to help patients with comfort measures, provides financial support to patients and families, and grants special wishes.

Last Mile Ride

Cyclists leave for the Last Mile Ride on Saturday. (Provided/Janet Miller)

This year marked both a record number of participants – 386 in total – and a record amount of money raised. It was also an event fraught with emotional highs and lows.

The event included a Harley-Davidson raffle. Cody Flanagan, 19, from Barre won the bike from Wilkins Harley-Davidson, but wasn’t there to receive it. He is in Afghanistan.

His father, Tim Flanagan, a respiratory therapist at Gifford, who bought two tickets in Cody’s name accepted on his behalf. The older Flanagan got out that his son was in Afghanistan before breaking down. He received a standing ovation.

Last Mile Ride

Motorcyclists wind their way through central Vermont as part of the Last Mile Ride on Saturday. (Provided/Alison White)

“I was just ecstatic and overwhelmed for Cody,” Tim Flanagan said Monday. “I just felt it was a storybook kind of finish. It was meant to be.”

Cody, a medic airborne ranger, who graduated from Spaulding High School a year early, joined the U.S. Army two years ago at age 17. He has been in Afghanistan a month. His battalion just lost a member on Aug. 12 and has been on an emotional low.

Tim Flanagan called his son in Afghanistan from the ride to tell him he had won. It was around midnight there and he was exhausted, but excited. “He’s quite ecstatic. He’s thrilled,” said his father, noting it has been a morale booster for the unit.

The moment was reminiscent of the cause, which uplifts families in difficult situations.

Last Mile Ride

Margaret Gish of Sharon races back toward Gifford in the fastest among a female at 20:49.7. (Provided/Janet Miller)

Robin Morgan spoke at the 5K and walk on Friday evening. She lost her step-father Michael Durkee to an aggressive cancer in May 2013. He spent his last days in the Garden Room – Gifford’s garden-side end-of-life care suite.

“Being in the Garden Room, we all got to be together. They were so supportive of us,” Morgan said. “They gave us food, (and) everything you can possibly imagine.”

Morgan and her family walked in the Last Mile last year and again this year. Morgan pushed her two young children in a double-stroller. “It (the Last Mile Ride) is a big part of my life now,” she said, before rushing to embrace her mom and Michael Durkee’s widow, Joan Durkee.

Last Mile Ride

Last Mile walkers return to Gifford Friday evening. (Provided/Janet Miller)

Palliative care nurse John Young on Saturday at the motorcycle and cycle ride spoke of the privilege of working at a hospital that supports palliative care and how lucky the hospital is to have the community’s support.

Physician assistant Starr Strong remembered her friend Judy Alexander who was “an incredible nurse, wonderful friend and mother.” A “Harley chick” and past participant of the Last Mile Ride, Alexander died in April of cancer.

Her family received assistance from the Last Mile Ride fund.

Last Mile Ride

Philip Tenney of Northfield walks over the finish line of the Last Mile Ride 5K. He came in last (1:00:14.0) but was first in many participants’ eyes. Three weeks earlier he had a lifesaving kidney transplant. (Provided/Alison White)

“It made her passing much richer because of the support from the Last Mile Ride,” Strong said, encouraging those present to recognize both the importance of their contribution “because you never know when it’s your turn” and to “celebrate life.”

The event also included the raffle of a bicycle from Green Mountain Bikes in Rochester. Richard Polarek, 88, from Brookfield won the bicycle. And a queen-size quilt made by Gifford nursing staff was won by motorcyclist Cherry Lloyd of Randolph.

Prizes were also given out for the events top fund-raisers and the top 5K finishers.

The fastest male finishers were Christopher Gish of Sharon (16:37.9), David Mattern of Tunbridge (18:47.6) and Zachery McDermott of Randolph (20:26.0). The fastest female finishers were Margaret Gish of Sharon (20:49.7), Becky Olmstead of Bethel (23:58:4) and Stacy Pelletier of Braintree (24:11.7). See a full list of race results online at www.begoodsports.com/race-results/.

Last Mile Ride

Smiling motorcyclist

The top 5K fund-raiser was Kyla Grace of Randolph and the top walk fund-raiser was Penny Maxfield of East Roxbury. The top cyclist fund-raiser was Cory Gould of Worcester. And the top motorcycle fund-raisers were Linda Chugkowski and Robert Martin of Northfield who collectively raised $4,000 for the cause and Reg Mongeur of Randolph who raised more than $3,500.

Mongeur spent many evenings at Shaw’s in Randolph collecting for the cause.

“I have the time and the desire,” said Mongeur of why he made the effort. “I’ve lost quite a few family members in the Garden Room and quite a few vets went through there.

“It’s just my way of giving back to the community,” said Mongeur, who also coordinated road guard efforts for the ride as a member of the Combat Veterans Motorcycle Association Chapter 26-2.

Last Mile Ride

Runners, from front, Richard Kozlowski, Stacy Pelletier and Becky Olmstead race along Route 12 toward Beanville Road. (Provided/Alison White)

This year’s ride, he said, was “beautiful, absolutely gorgeous.” Riders returning it called it “the best.”

As top fund-raisers, Chugkowski and Martin won four Red Sox tickets and VIP tour of Fenway thanks to the generosity of the Red Sox and Froggy 100.9. Mongeur won four tickets to the New Hampshire Motor Speedway to see the Sylvania 300 thanks to the generosity of the Loudon, N.H., organization.

Many other prizes were given out, thanks to the generosity of local and regional businesses. The event also received record sponsorship support, including from major sponsors The Frankenburg Agency, Froggy 100.9, Lucky’s Trailer Sales, Northfield Savings Bank and Wilkins Harley-Davidson.

The 10th annual Last Mile Ride will be Aug. 14 and 15, 2015.

Another Labor of Love

Betsy Dawn quilt

Betsy Hannah, left, and Dawn DeCoff and her daughter, Hayley DeCoff, 10, right, pose with the beautiful quilt they made as an annual raffle item for the Last Mile Ride.

Each year the Last Mile Ride also features a quilt made by Gifford’s nursing staff and raffled off as part of the ride.

This year’s gorgeous queen-size scrappy star quilt is made by licensed practical nurse Betsy Hannah and licensed nursing assistant Dawn DeCoff as well as DeCoff’s young daughter, Hayley.

The elaborate quilt took the trio about two months to complete, and the machine quilting was donated by Piece of Mind Quilting in Canaan, N.H.

DeCoff has helped make a quilt for the ride since its inception and Hannah has helped the last several years. Both also donate quilts to other community causes.

“I love sewing. It relaxes me. It’s one of my many past-times,” says Hannah. “It’s great to be able to give things (to the community).”

This year’s quilt took on extra special meaning after her husband, Jim, died in November and Hannah received Last Mile Ride funds.

For DeCoff, it is also the cause that motivates her. As a part of Gifford’s inpatient care team, she sees the funds help families firsthand.

Tickets for the quilt – along with a new bicycle from Green Mountain Bikes in Rochester and a new Harley from Wilkins Harley-Davidson in Barre – are on sale at the hospital Gift Shop and in the Marketing Department and will be for sale at the ride.

‘A Labor of Love’

Sue Schoolcraft

Sue Schoolcraft poses outside of her Randolph Center home with her latest Menig quilt and her sewing machine, which she even packs on vacations so Menig Extended Care Facility residents get their quilts as soon as possible. It takes her between two days to a month to create each quilt.

The Last Mile Ride this Friday and Saturday at Gifford Medical Center in Randolph is a lot of things to a lot of people.

For the residents of the Menig Extended Care Facility, it is a splash of color and warmth during the last years of life.

Sue Schoolcraft’s mother always sewed. She made Schoolcraft and her twin brothers’ clothes and winter wear on a tiny, portable General Electric machine. “Until I was married, she made clothes for me,” says Schoolcraft, who was born at the start of World War II and amid the Great Depression.

Sue Schoolcraft

Sue Schoolcraft, who makes quilts for Menig residents thanks to funds raised each year at the Last Mile Ride, demonstrates a stitch.

Schoolcraft’s interest in quilting was born in high school in her native New York.

“I started probably right after high school. We had a history teacher and he would take us to museums and living history museums, and I saw all these quilts,” she says, recalling watching women quilting and then seeing a striking image of a Baltimore Album quilt in a magazine.

“It was beautiful. It just appealed to me,” says Schoolcraft.

Sue Schoolcraft

A quilting book tops a small stack of reading materials in Sue Schoolcraft’s living room.

Her mom helped her get started and she worked on that quilt, her first, for years – through marriage, children and moves to Swanton, Vt., Sheldon Springs, Randolph, Fairfax and Braintree Hill before finally moving to Randolph Center more than 40 years ago.

In Vermont, Schoolcraft found a quilting community. She joined an East Bethel hand crafters group, made a second quilt for her daughter and eventually sold at craft fairs.

Sue Schoolcraft

Menig resident Barb Reynolds’ quilt features bright greens. “I like the color of it and all the hard work that’s in it.” It is Barb’s first ever quilt, she says.

She was teaching a quilting class at her church in Randolph Center, the First Congregational Church of Randolph, when she saw an ad in the paper from the Menig Extended Care Facility in Randolph looking for quilts for its 30 nursing home residents.

Schoolcraft, a stay-at-home mom and avid sewer, responded and put her four students to work.

“They had just opened up the new Menig center,” Schoolcraft recalls. “We suddenly needed 30 quilts. I was teaching a quilt class at the time and we started making quilts.

“And I just loved it and kept on.”

Sue Schoolcraft

Menig resident Jean “Terry” Wilson loves her quilt’s colors, particularly the pink.

Today when a new resident moves in to Menig, 75-year-old Schoolcraft talks to the resident about his or her interests and likes, or receives this information from Menig staff, and gets to work herself making a personalized quilt.

One such quilt stands out in Schoolcraft’s memory. Her mother – that mother who taught her to sew – Dorothy Morack, lived at Menig during her final years.

“She wanted butterflies. So I found material,” Schoolcraft says. “It just made me happy to know that I was able to do something special for her after all the things she had done for me.”

A more recent quilt featured tractors, trees and a gambrel roof barn for a male resident.

Sue Schoolcraft

Mertie Seymour likes flowers, so that is what her quilt at Menig features.

While each is different – be it butterflies or barns – there is one constant to the quilts that neatly adorn each resident’s bed. “I try to do quilts in bright and cheerful colors, especially with our long winters,” says Schoolcraft, who hopes to uplift the residents during what for most are their final years.

The work is supported by the Last Mile Ride, Gifford’s annual charity motorcycle ride, cycle ride, 5K and 1-mile walk, which raises money for free services for people in advanced illness or at the end-of-life.

For Schoolcraft, the work is “a labor of love.” Occasionally, she gets thank you notes and relishes in residents’ reactions. “’Look what I got! Look what I got!’” said one. “’This is for me?’ Did you make this for me?’” inquired another.

“It just brings me happiness and joy to do this. It has many different aspects. It’s giving back to the community that has been so good to us,” she says of herself and husband Ron. “It connects us to people.”

The Last Mile Ride 5K run and one-mile walk is Friday. A 38-mile cycle ride and 79-mile motorcycle ride is being held on Saturday. The events raise money for special services for those in life’s last mile. Those services include alternative therapies such as massage and music therapy; food for families staying in Gifford’s Garden Room for end-of-life patients; professional family photos; family grants; gas cards to doctors’ appointments; and special family requests, such as a family trip to a Red Sox game, a flight to be at a loved one’s side, a handicapped ramp, or other small home improvements.

Log on to www.giffordmed.org or call 728-2284 to learn more. Participants can register on the day of the event.

Patient and Giving Statistics

The following is an excerpt from our 2013 Annual Report: A Recipe for Success.
Gifford financial giving 2013

Categories of giving by type

Each year Gifford is fortunate to receive generous gifts from our friends. Gifts are made to benefit specific purposes, such as technology or services, or to the general fund. The Last Mile Ride, which raises money for end-of-life care, continues to grow in popularity and benefits patients and their families. The pie chart shows the donations – all of which are greatly appreciated.

Gifford financial giving

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.