Gifford’s 24-hour midwifery team includes, from left, certified nurse-midwives Meghan Sperry, Maggie Gardner, April Vanderveer and Kathryn Saunders. (Photo provided)
Gifford’s renowned midwifery team is holding an open house to introduce its recently expanded team to the community and offer some free health advice.
Gifford’s certified nurse-midwives, Kathryn Saunders, Meghan Sperry, Maggie Gardner and April Vanderveer, will hold an open house on Thursday, July 24 from 4-7 p.m. in The Family Center beside Gifford Ob/Gyn and Midwifery off South Main Street in Randolph.
All are welcome, especially those expecting a baby, thinking of planning a family or interested in women’s health.
The open house will be an opportunity to meet the midwives, tour the Birthing Center (if it is not too full with new babies and families) and receive expert advice. In addition to the midwives, lactation consultant and childbirth educator Nancy Clark will be on hand to talk breastfeeding, child development and more. And, for those who are expecting, Gifford Vice President of Patient Care Services (and photographer) Alison White will be offering belly photos.
There will also be balloons for the kids, giveaways, refreshments and door prizes, including a belly casting kit, baby product basket, a yoga gift certificate generously donated by Fusion Studio of Montpelier and a one-hour massage generously donated Massages Professionals of Randolph.
“We’re enthusiastic for this support from Fusion Studio and Massage Professionals of Randolph, and we’re excited to introduce our team to the community. We are like-minded caregivers committed to offering women and families an experience that meets their desires and goals, while also resulting in safe and healthy pregnancies and babies,” said Sperry.
Stop by to meet the midwives and to learn more about women’s health. Call Gifford Ob/Gyn and Midwifery at 728-2401 to learn more.
The South Royalton Band plays in the Gifford park in 2012.
Gifford Medical Center and the White River Valley Chamber of Commerce once again are partnering – with the help of area sponsors – to offer a summer concert series for six consecutive weeks.
Held each Tuesday at 6 p.m. in the Gifford park on Route 12 south of the downtown, the 3rd Annual Community Concert Series will begin on July 8 with the South Royalton Band. The series continues on July 15 with Jeanne & The Hi-Tops performing old time rock and roll, on July 22 with Jennings & McComber offering Green Mountain indie folk and on July 29 with blues and soul from The Dave Keller Band.
The South Royalton Band opened the very first concert in 2012 in Gifford’s then-new park.
In August will be The Trail Blaizers, a bluegrass band, and Two for the Show and Company singing song standards and classics.
This year’s concert series features a couple of new elements. A farmers’ market will be held each week with farm products, crafts, handmade goods and more. And on July 29 Stagecoach will host a barbecue fund-raiser as part of the evening’s events.
All concerts are generously brought to the community for free thanks to sponsorships from Gillespie Fuels & Propane Inc., the Frankenburg Agency Inc. and the Gifford Auxiliary.
Everyone is welcome to attend. Participants are encouraged to bring lawn chairs, picnic blankets, family and friends.
The concerts are weather dependent and may be canceled or rescheduled in the event of rain. Look for updates on Gifford’s and the Chamber’s Web sites and their Facebook pages. Cancellations will also be noted with signage near the park.
Call 728-2339 to learn more, including how to become a vendor. There is no vendor fee. Vendors may come when they’re able or all summer long during the concerts.
This season, the South Royalton Band opens the 3rd Annual Community Concert Series.
Project Independence participants, from left, Marie, Diana and Kathy dance to singing and music by a visiting Chris Beltrami (not shown).
BARRE – The state’s first adult day center, Project Independence, got its start in Barre in 1975 when a nursing home activity director, Lindsey Wade, recognized an opportunity to do things better and more cost effectively.
Wade encountered nursing home residents who didn’t seem to medically belong there. Others were visiting the nursing home daily for the social interaction. Wade had an idea. The area needed an adult day care and not a medical model adult day, but a social model – something that didn’t exist anywhere else in the country.
An active board and an interested city brought to life Project Independence on Washington Street and in the decades since, its model has not only flourished but expanded statewide. There are currently 14 adult day programs in Vermont.
Project Independence Executive Director Dee Rollins visits with participants, from left, Flo, Gail, Beverly and Shirley as they wait to be served a home-cooked lunch that included baked macaroni and cheese and flavorful carrots.
Today’s Project Independence serves 23 towns in Washington and northern Orange counties, welcoming an average 38 seniors and the disabled each weekday. The project includes meals, showers, medication management and ample activities, allowing them a fun and safe day care experience while also allowing them to stay at home – a far more affordable model than nursing home care.
But statewide adult days are struggling. Funding available for adult days almost guarantees failure. “The Adult Day financial model is not a successful one,” says Project Independence Executive Director Dee Rollins. “It’s a continued struggle to support our model.”
And Project Independence has had some recent extra hurdles.
It bought a North Main Street location and moved in 2010. Less than a year later, in May of 2011, the building flooded during a period of torrential rains that had storm water draining through a bulkhead into the building’s basement causing $295,000 in damages and losses. The following summer a sewer hookup issue during Barre’s “Big Dig” caused backups and additional damages and losses.
Gifford licensed nursing assistant Penny Severance helps Project Independence participant, Maddie, to her table for lunch.
Between those losses and looming health care reform that promises changes to health care funding and encourages health care relationships, small, standalone Project Independence began looking for help in the form of a partner. It found it in Gifford Health Care in Randolph.
Project Independence of Barre and the Gifford Retirement Community, part of Gifford Health Care in Randolph, will merge at the conclusion of Gifford’s fiscal year on Sept. 30. Boards for the two nonprofit organizations unanimously agreed to the merger in May after studying the relationship for more than a year.
It will be a full asset merger with Project Independence retaining its name, location and fund-raising dollars. Project Independence’s board will become an advisory board to provide local perspective and experience, and employees will become part of Gifford, opening the door to enhanced benefits. Project Independence will benefit from Gifford’s staff, from financial to billing to nursing help, as well as its buying power as a larger organization.
For Project Independence it is an opportunity for financial stability and more amidst what have been a stormy couple of years and the projected financial changes under health care reform. For Gifford, it is an opportunity to further its work to support seniors and to partner with a reputable organization.
“It’s the right thing. It’s the right match. We have the right partner,” says Rollins, who was drawn to Gifford because it has its own adult day, the Gifford Adult Day Program in Bethel, shares a mission of supporting seniors and because of the Randolph hospital’s commitment to community.
Tammy Mattote, left, a licensed nursing assistant at Project Independence in Barre, serves participant Joanne lunch.
Gifford is currently building a senior living community in Randolph Center that will include a new nursing home and independent and assisted living units after seeing a need in the community for these services.
The Randolph medical center also already has services in the Barre area in the form of a health center off the Airport Road in Berlin. The Gifford Health Center at Berlin is home to family medicine, pediatrics, internal medicine, infectious disease, midwifery, orthopedics, podiatry, neurology and urology services.
“The combination of the two of us makes a lot of common sense and a lot of business sense,” Project Independence Board Chairman Steve Koenemann said, calling his board’s vote a very easy one to make and the plan “a no-lose proposition.”
“The goal is try to see the program grow,” Koenemann said. “We don’t want to change Project Independence. It has nearly 40 years of experience and reputation serving that community that’s not something that you want to back away from.”
“It’s not taking away anything from Project. It’s all additions,” added Rollins.
Gifford employees have already been providing support to Project Independence over the last year as the two organizations have carefully studied a merger.
Project Independence staff pose in front of the North Main Street adult day center in Barre. The center will merge with Gifford Health Care in Randolph this fall.
“When someone has a humble request for help as it relates to the delivery of health care services, we take that seriously,” said Gifford Administrator Joseph Woodin, praising Project Independence’s board, values, volunteers and hardworking team. “For us, that’s extraordinarily appealing and we’re thankful that they’ve asked us.”
“We feel this is an honor that they asked,” agreed Linda Minsinger, Gifford Retirement Community executive director. “This is the right thing to do. It’s really important that these participants have a place that will carry on.”
Joining with Project Independence is in keeping with Gifford’s mission and providing support to a needed service that will no doubt grow as the state looks for more affordable ways to care for a growing senior population, said Gifford Board Chairman Gus Meyer.
“When you’re a very small organization, you don’t have the staff to do all of the different things to be done. It’s extremely difficult and it’s extremely draining to make an organization of that size successful. They’ve done a great job of keeping their organization alive in the face of huge challenges and at the same time provided a great service,” Meyer said. “A larger organization is much more able to absorb things that just come up. If there’s some facilities’ damage, it doesn’t become devastating.”
That is a scenario that has Project Independence breathing a sigh of relief.
“We are just all so encouraged. This just brings a true breath of fresh hope,” Rollins said. “We’re dancing in the streets.”
Well, maybe in the living room.
Project Independence participants – most of whom think of their home away from home as “the club” not an adult day center – let up a cheer upon hearing the news from Rollins that “the club” would merge with Gifford.
Staff members, who have been part of what have been very transparent discussions, were equally enthusiastic.
Cook Pam Bresette of South Barre said, “I think it’s going to be fabulous.”
Office Administrator Sue Catto of Barre took her job a year ago knowing positive changes were coming.
Licensed nursing assistant Amanda Koledo of Barre hopes to go to nursing school. Gifford provides tuition reimbursement.
Koledo has worked at Project Independence for six years. “I think it’s so exciting,” she said. “We’re on an island and we’ll now have life jackets.”
“Long May She Wave” is one of Bethel acrylic artist Janet Hayward Burnham’s pieces in the Gifford Medical Center art gallery in Randolph from May 28 through June 25.
Artist and author Janet Hayward Burnham brings her acrylic and pen and ink works to the Gifford Medical Center art gallery from May 28 through June 25.
Burnham, now of Bethel, was born in Indiana, but never lived there. She went on to live in nine other states, attending 14 schools from kindergarten through college.
Burnham came to Vermont in 1968 with her husband and four children. They bought a farm in the Champlain Valley in Orwell, where Burnham taught art for a number of years and also wrote for Vermont Life.
Burnham was 42 when she graduated with a bachelor’s in fine arts from Castleton State College in 1979. “ … my two teenaged daughters – seated in the crowd – made me grin when they cheered as my name was called out at the graduation ceremonies,” Burnham recalls.
Art was Burnham’s first love.
“I think I’ve loved the art of making art since I picked up my first crayon,” she says. “Art was always my favorite class, bar none … even better than recess.”
She added the written word to her list of loves, and talents, in college.
Castleton was Burnham’s third college. Earlier at Columbia University in New York City in the late 1950s, while married and pregnant, an English professor first brought to light Burnham’s talent. He tasked the class with a first writing assignment. “When he passed the papers back two weeks later, he said we had all done fairly well, but there was one that was so outstanding, he was going to read it to the class. When he began reading, I was absolutely dumbfounded. It was mine. In all those schools I had attended – and some were excellent private schools – nobody ever told me I had a gift for working with words,” Burnham recalls.
“I now had two creative loves – art and the art of words.”
A poetry book Burnham wrote and illustrated, “A Week Ago Cat,” is the combination of those two loves.
Her show features illustrations and poems from the children’s book as well as other more adult pieces, and the book will be for sale in Gifford’s Gift Shop.
In addition to her book of poems, Burnham has been published in Yankee, Grit, The Boston Globe, The New York Daily News, Country Journal, Instructor, The Rutland Business Journal, The Herald of Randolph, and Woman’s World. She also penned two novels published in the United Kingdom that went on to editions in Sweden, Norway and the United States.
More recently, she helped research and was the lone writer of a book for The Bethel Historical Society titled “Vermont’s Elusive Architect George H. Guernsey.”
See Burnham’s unique art in the Gifford Galley. The show is free and open to the public. The Gifford Gallery is just inside the main entrance of the Randolph hospital at 44 S. Main St. Call Gifford at (802) 728-2324 for more information.
This article was featured in ourSpring 2014 Update Community Newsletter.
The Kingwood Health Center in Randolph underwent an expansion in the fall that both improved the Route 66 health center and freed up needed space at Gifford’s downtown campus.
The addition was completed in November and over the winter several Gifford departments made the move to the impressive, new space. Those departments included:
Occupational and speech therapies, which joined outpatient physical therapy on the ground floor of Kingwood
The move of occupational and speech therapies creates a full-spectrum, multidisciplinary rehabilitation center at Kingwood. Added is some gym space, six new exam rooms and improved staff areas.
“Everyone loves the new building,” notes Megan Sault, the rehabilitation department’s operations coordinator.
Having all rehabilitation services in one, convenient location has reduced confusion among patients as to where they should go for their appointment and allows for a collaborative approach to care.
“It’s really great to be so close to team members and share this beautiful facility,” says speech therapist Kathy Carver, who on the day we visited was meeting with patient Terry White of Randolph Center. Terry, who had a stroke, had also seen physical therapy that day, allowing him to make just one trip to Kingwood, and allowing collaboration on Terry’s care.
For others the new location near Interstate 89 is just convenient.
Occupational therapy patient Michael Dempsey of Brookfield was recovering from a broken arm that had left him with shoulder pain. “It’s nice, got a lot of room and is closer to my house. It’s convenient,” Michael remarked.
On the top floor is new office space for accounting as well as billing, or what the medical center calls patient financial services. This is where patients can go to pay their bills or make billing inquiries.
To find the billing office, park in the upper drive and use the door on the left. There are signs inside.
Gifford first bought the Kingwood building in 2007 as an opportunity to expand services. Initially the flat-roofed, dark structure underwent renovations. The new addition seamlessly expanded the structure toward the wood-line.
Also located at the health center are Gifford’s Blueprint Community Health Team, mental health practitioner Cory Gould, the Diabetes Clinic and a private practice dentist, Dr. John Westbrook – all on the top floor.
Call the health center at 728-7100 and listen for options for reaching the various departments.
Health Connections caseworker Michele Packard remains at the main medical center. Michele provides patients help accessing insurance and free care options. (Go in the main entrance at Gifford’s main campus and look for signs to find Michele.)
Officials break ground Tuesday afternoon on Gifford Medical Center’s senior living community in Randolph Center. From left are Dan Smith from builder HP Cummings Construction Co., Gifford nursing home administrator Linda Minsinger, Gifford board Chairman ¬¬Gus Meyer, Gifford Administrator Joe Woodin, Gifford Vice President of Operations and Surgery Rebecca O’Berry and retired Gifford plant operations director Theron Manning.
Amid cloudy skies and unseasonably chilly temperatures, a crowd of more than 100 turned out Tuesday afternoon to show their support as officials from Gifford Medical Center officially broke ground on a much-anticipated Senior Living Community.
For more than two years Gifford in Randolph has been working to gain approvals and move forward with a project that includes the reconstruction of its 30-bed nursing home, the Menig Extended Care Facility, on 30 picturesque acres in Randolph Center. Later phases of the project would include up to 100 independent living units and 20 assisted living beds.
Plans additionally call for renovations at the hospital. Once Menig moves, the current nursing home at Gifford will be renovated into 25 private inpatient rooms for patient safety and privacy. The hospital now has shared rooms.
Gifford earned Act 250 approval for the first two phases of the project – the new 30-bed nursing home and 40 independent living units – last August and Certificate of Need approval for both the new nursing home and hospital renovations from the Green Mountain Care Board in October.
Spring construction was planned and on Tuesday hospital officials along with the contractor HP Cummings Construction Co., architect MorrisSwitzer, and engineer DuBois & King broke ground on the new nursing home.
“It is a great occasion to celebrate this next step,” said Gifford Administrator Joseph Woodin. “To be able to put the shovel to the ground, we’ll remember this.”
Woodin noted the nursing home’s history and track record.
Gifford opened the Menig Extended Care Facility in 1998 after a local for-profit nursing home, 53-bed Tranquility Nursing Home, was “closed” by the state for quality concerns.
Since it has opened, Menig has won numerous state and national awards for quality, including being named one of the country’s 39 best nursing homes in 2012 by U.S. News and World Report. The only nursing home in all of Orange County, Menig has a significant waiting list – about 100 people – for care.
Gifford Administrator Joseph Woodin addresses a crowd of more than 100 at Tuesday’s groundbreaking for Gifford’s senior living community in Randolph Center.
It’s nursing home officials’ hope that by adding assisted living units, some of that waiting list will be diminished. The medical center has also seen community members move outside of the area for independent living options.
Ashley Lincoln, Gifford’s director of development, called the project “both personally and professionally exciting.” “It is an opportunity for Gifford to carry on its tradition of meeting the community’s care needs, and it will allow more of our senior family and friends to remain in the region where they have grown up.”
The project, said Gifford Board of Trustees Chairman Gus Meyer, is a step forward for the hospital and the community.
“It has long been true in health care, if you stand still, you’re going to lose,” Meyer said.
And while Tuesday’s groundbreaking was for the new nursing home phase of the project, the complete plans are what excite Meyer.
“It’s not just a nursing home moving up on the hill. It’s all the renovations that are going to occur at the hospital,” he said, “and independent and assisted living come behind. We’re really excited about that, and we’re really excited to do this in a way that makes sense financially and that makes sense for our communities.
“This is all a part of Gifford becoming even more involved in the health of our communities, … and doing all we can to realize our vision of having the healthiest communities that we can.”
Construction on the new nursing home is expected to take about a year. Renovations at the hospital will follow.
Local artist Gene Parent’s watercolors, pen and ink drawings, pastels and more are in the Gifford Gallery until May 28.
Largely self-taught, Parent is a fourth-generation Vermonter who spent his youth in Richmond. He now lives in Brookfield with his family.
A member of the Vermont Watercolor Society, The Pastel Society and The Paletteers, Parent brings of diverse show of Vermont landscapes, farm animals and more in a variety of media.
Perhaps best known for his watercolors, he has received many first and second place awards for his works. He has shown throughout northern Vermont, including solo shows at Copley Woodlands in Stowe, the Cobblestone Café in Burlington, LaBrioche in Montpelier, the Chelsea Public Library, the Kellogg-Hubbard Library in Montpelier, the Good Shepherd Episcopal Church in Barre and at Gifford.
“Art brings me intimately closer to everything I paint, from the rustling leaves to the flutter and song of little birds, the subtle sounds of running water and the distant mournful calls of a fledging crow,” Parent says. “I enjoy several media. Watercolors are the most exciting and challenging and pen the most fun, followed by pencil sketching.
Parent’s show is free and open to the public. The Gifford Gallery is just inside the main entrance of the Randolph hospital at 44 S. Main St. Call Gifford at (802) 728-2324 for more information.
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 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.
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.
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, 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.”
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.
Naturopathic physician Dr. Erica Koch leads a Prenatal Health Series at Gifford for pregnant women and expectant families beginning May 15.
The series includes four Thursday classes that participants can take individually or as a whole. They are “Nutrition during Pregnancy” on May 15, “Herbal Medicine, Vitamins and Minerals during Pregnancy” on May 22, “Movement and Regeneration” on May 29 and “Mind/Body Medicine” on June 5.
“Nutrition during Pregnancy” covers eating well, meeting nutritional needs, food as medicine, environmental toxins and chemicals to avoid, food cravings and how to address them, and how to shop for food.
“Herbal Medicine, Vitamins and Minerals during Pregnancy” looks at nutrients to promote and maintain good health, and manage symptoms such as headaches, muscle spasms, fatigue, nausea and constipation. It also looks at herbs to avoid during pregnancy and breastfeeding.
“Movement and Regeneration”with guest teacher Amy LePage focuses on yoga sequences to improve energy, relieve discomfort, aid in digestion and prepare for birth. The class also teaches breathing exercises to encourage relaxation and reduce stress.
Finally, “Mind/Body Medicine” teaches stress reduction and how to build resilience, increase awareness and support labor. It gives participants the tools to begin a daily self-care practice.
“These classes are for anyone who is interested in promoting health during pregnancy and managing symptoms naturally. The goal is to empower people with the knowledge and practices of a healthy lifestyle. Pregnant women have different needs and knowing how to address them in a safe and effective way is important. Women who are trying to conceive, who are pregnant, their partners and practitioners are all welcome to attend,” said Dr. Koch.
Dr. Koch is an experienced naturopathic doctor, educator, gardener and co-founder of Whole Systems Health, a non-profit organization focusing on nature-based education, health and resilience. She earned her doctor of naturopathic medicine degree from the National College of Natural Medicine, where she completed advanced training in women’s health and midwifery. She also holds a master’s degree from Rutgers University.
The classes will be held from 5-8 p.m. at Gifford in The Family Center beside Gifford Ob/Gyn and Midwifery at 38 S. Main St. (off Route 12) in Randolph.
Dr. Koch offers a sliding scale fee of $50-$75 for each class plus a $10 materials fee. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org to sign up or with questions.
Starr Strong blazed a new role for 21 years at Chelsea Health Center
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 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 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 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 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.