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.
Gifford Medical Center is offering a handful of upcoming trainings aimed at children and families.
On Thursday, May 8, the Randolph hospital will offer a non-certification Infant and Child CPR course for families, friends and caregivers of babies and children. Classes are presented by an instructor certified by the American Heart Association. The free class is from 6-8 p.m. Call 728-7710 to sign up.
On Saturday, May 10 from 9:30 a.m. to noon will be a training for children ages 8-11 called “Home Alone and Safe.”
Designed by chapters of the American Red Cross, this course is offered by instructor Jude Powers and teaches children how to respond to home alone situations, including Internet safety, family communications, telephone safety, sibling care, personal and gun safety, and basic emergency care. Children will role play, brainstorm, watch a video, take home a workbooks and handouts, and earn a certification upon completion.
The cost to participate is $15. Call Powers at 649-1841 to join.
And then on Saturday, May 17 from 9:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. a Babysitter’s Training Course will be offered. Again offered by Powers, the course teaches budding babysitters how to be safe, responsible and successful. It covers good business practices, basic care, diapering, safety, play, proper hand washing, handling infants, responding to injuries, decision making in emergencies, action plans and much more.
Communication skills are emphasized along with being a good role model, and participants receive a certification card upon completion of the course and reference notebook to take home.
There is a $20 fee to participant and participants should bring their lunch. Call Powers at 649-1841 to join.
All these events are being held in The Family Center, beside Gifford Ob/Gyn and Midwifery at 38 S. Main St. (Route 12) in Randolph. Registration is required as seating is limited.
The following is an excerpt from our 2013 Annual Report: A Recipe for Success.
Cindy Legacy and dietitian Stacy Pelletier
For six months leading up to her bariatric surgery, Cindy Legacy of Randolph met with registered dietitian Stacy Pelletier and has kept in touch in person and via e-mail since. Cindy lost 30 pounds before her surgery and another 80 pounds since, for a total 110 pounds of weight loss. More importantly, she experienced a major improvement in her
health, in part thanks to Stacy’s continued help.
“She is a wonderful, wonderful , wonderful support person. I wanted to succeed. She wanted me to succeed. She listened to what I had to say and made me feel like she really cared about what I was trying to do. There was no judgment. She’s like a security blanket. I can go and say, ‘What do I do?’”
~ Cindy Legacy
Pictured here, from left, are volunteers Irene Schaefer and Phyllis Roberts.
Gifford Medical Center’s hats were off, well technically on, in recognition of its volunteers at an annual appreciation luncheon Monday. The “Hats Off to You” hat-themed event welcomed 70 of Gifford’s hospital and Auxiliary volunteers.
In all, Gifford had 120 volunteers in 2013 who gave 16,678 hours to the non-profit medical center, or 2,085 eight-hour days. Auxiliary volunteers working at the Thrift Shop gave another 6,489 hours, or 811 eight-hour days.
Volunteer Coordinator Julie Fischer noted that the number of volunteers and volunteer hours was remarkable. “We are amazing,” she said.
Pictured here, from left, are volunteers Beth Kittel and Joan Granter.
In recognition of their year of service, volunteers were treated to a delicious lunch, door prizes from 17 area businesses, favors, accolades, a presentation from hospital president Joseph Woodin and even an impromptu round of singing “You Are My Sunshine” from managers working as servers at the event.
Managers, wearing hats in appreciation of the volunteers, came from different areas of the hospital and offered heartfelt thanks.
“Thank you for helping to enrich the lives of the residents,” said Terry MacDougal, Menig Extended Care Facility activities director. Menig is Gifford’s nursing home.
Pictured here, from left, are volunteers Donna Bosworth, Shirley Russell and Elizabeth Mahaffy.
“What you bring is just enormous,” agreed Menig Director of Nursing Brooks Chapin.
Volunteers were thanked for their remarkable gift of time, for offering support to staff as well as patients, for their warm smiles and for their hugs. “You bring peace, comfort and stability to the organization,” Woodin said.
Woodin went on to share the latest on Gifford’s plans to build a senior living community in Randolph Center and private inpatient rooms at the medical center. Gifford hopes to break ground on the first phase of the project, a new nursing home in Randolph Center, next month.
Pictured here, from left, are volunteers David and Lori Peirce.
Volunteers were enthusiastic about the plans, which have already garnered remarkable support from the Gifford Auxiliary. The Auxiliary has pledged $650,000 to the project.
One other remarkable achievement of 2013 for Gifford volunteers was the recognition of Major Melvin McLaughlin as Vermont’s and the nation’s Outstanding Senior Volunteer. McLaughlin earned a round of applause from his fellow volunteers.
Businesses generously donating door prizes and favors to the volunteers were Belmains, Blue Moon, Central Supplies, Chef’s Market, Cockadoodle Pizza Café, Dandelion Acres, Holiday Beauty Salon, Onion Flats, Randolph Village Pizza, The Harrington House, Tozier’s, One Main Tap and Grill, Bethel Village Sandwich Shop, Sidewalk Florist, Drop Dead Gorgeous hair salon, the Aiken family of Bethel and Freedom Foods.
The following is an excerpt from our 2013 Annual Report: A Recipe for Success.
When Donna Shephard of Rochester came with her husband, Dick, for an appointment at Gifford primary care on her 72nd birthday in April, nurse Dorothy Jamieson had cake, cupcakes, a crown and lei waiting as a surprise. Donna, who has Parkison’s and regularly visits Gifford, was appreciative of the birthday surprise but more so of the care that Dot
“I love her. She’s the best nurse that you (could) ever see. You don’t get them like that. She’s so gentle and nice and friendly. She puts a smile on anyone’s face.”
~ Donna Shepard
Nurse Dorothy Jamieson with Dick and Donna Shepard
Members of Gifford’s breast care team pose in this file photo. They are, from left, certified breast sonographer Terri Hodgdon, certified mammogram technologist Cheryl Jewkes, board certified radiologist Dr. Scott Smith, certified breast sonographer Kim Nelson and patient care navigator Brittany Kelton.
Gifford Medical Center’s mammography and nuclear medicine departments have both been awarded three-year reaccreditations by the American College of Radiology.
The American College of Radiology calls their recognition the “gold seal of accreditation” and notes it represents the highest level of image quality and patient safety.
The accreditation is awarded only to facilities meeting American College of Radiology practice guidelines and technical standards after a peer-review evaluation by board certified physicians and medical physicists who are experts in the field. Assessed are image quality from actual patient images taken (without sharing patient names), personnel qualifications, facility equipment, quality control procedures and quality assurance programs.
Quality control procedures include daily, weekly and monthly checks of machines to determine they are functioning optimally.
Gifford submitted its records for review for reaccreditation for both mammography and nuclear medicine in January and heard back on March 26.
The recognition, says Nuclear Medicine Manager Tera Benson, tells patients “we’re dedicated to providing the best quality image.”
In addition, it ensures that Gifford is following not just what it deems the best standards for care, but national standards for care.
“We are fortunate to receive a lot of positive feedback from patients regarding the courtesy of our staff or the speed with which we complete exams like mammograms. This accreditation is a recognition of all the work that occurs behind the scenes to ensure patients not only have a great experience, but the highest quality imaging as well,” said Director of Ancillary Services Pam Caron, who praised her team’s hard work.
According to the American College of Radiology’s Web site, Gifford is one of seven Vermont facilities with an accredited nuclear medicine program. The closest other programs are larger hospitals in Burlington and Rutland, as well as Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center in New Hampshire. A greater number of mammography programs are accredited.
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.
The following is an excerpt from our 2013 Annual Report: A Recipe for Success.
Arnie Williams, nurse Cindy Loomis and medical secretary Carol Young
Arnie Williams of Tunbridge had a hernia that needed a quick fix. His primary care doctor sent him straight upstairs to the general surgery office without an appointment. He was seen that day, a Wednesday, and was in surgery Friday morning. Medical secretary Carol Young got him in and nurse Cindy Loomis was by his side.
“I couldn’t have been treated better, physically and emotionally. Everyone has been so good to me… When you have something wrong with you and you’re in good hands, you feel very secure. You can just relax and let them do their job. It makes everything better.”
~ Arnie Williams
The following is an excerpt from our 2013 Annual Report: A Recipe for Success.
This has been another successful year for Gifford, and it is due to our continued ability to take care of so many different patients, from so many different communities. Ultimately that is our mission and focus, and for me constitutes our Recipe for Success. We continue to offer treatment and services over a wide geography, and “how” we do that is as important as “what” we do. We strive to bring personal attention into the clinical delivery system through relationships and flexibility. Sometimes we do these things very well, and sometimes we learn and grow from our experiences and shortcomings. In all instances we are indebted to the many communities and friends who utilize us and give us feedback and support.
A Gallon of Leadership
This has also been a year marked with stress over health care reform and the roll-out of both a national and state-wide insurance product (i.e. Vermont Health Connect). Although the state has done a better job than the federal government in implementing the insurance exchange, there is still much uncertainly about these new programs, with people looking for answers and assurance that this is the “right direction.” That uncertainty, however, does not find its way into our planning for the future. Gifford has always relied upon a simple understanding that if we focus on patient care, quality and insuring access to everyone, regardless of their ability to pay, we will be successful. Maybe it’s that three-ingredient recipe that has helped sustain us over these past 110 years (since our founding in 1903). While others are employing sophisticated forecasting techniques and prediction models, we are just trying our best to be your medical home and guide.
I hope you enjoy this report, and the many stories that highlight our efforts this past year. We are grateful for the legacy we have inherited, and continue to build upon that
success each and every year.
Arny and Cil Spahn have long background in photography
As they prepare to hang their exhibit in the Gifford Medical Center gallery, Arnold and Priscilla Spahn hold up photos they took in the Southwest. Priscilla’s photo is of a Navajo weaver in Gouldings, Utah. Arny holds a photo of what is known as “the left mitten” in Monument Valley, Utah.
Randolph couple Arnold “Arny” and Priscilla “Cil” Spahn present images of their travels to the Southwest in a joint photography exhibit at Gifford Medical Center March 26 through April 30.
The Spahns have been taking photographs since they were very young; Cil since she was 7 and Arny since age 9.
Born in Providence, R.I., Arny joined the U.S. Air Force at age 18 and then went on to work in Danbury, Conn., building high voltage test equipment. It was there that his talents in photography were recognized, and Arny became the company photographer and also technical writer.
Cil was raised in Connecticut and as a teenager won a number of awards for her photography. When the photography teacher at her high school became ill, Cil was asked to step in. At age 16, she did black and white photofinishing at a local camera shop and took photographs to accompany an article submitted to a national architectural magazine. She says she often wondered if the magazine editors knew the photographer was a teen.
In college at Skidmore, she both photographed and wrote for the school paper, moving up to managing editor her senior year.
Cil and Arny met volunteering as “flaggers,” or safety workers, at race tracks with the New England Region Sports Car Club of America. Cil was one of the first women course workers at tracks in Lime Rock, Conn., and Sebring, Fla.
A photography course in South Woodstock at the Doscher Country School of Photography paid for courtesy of Arny’s GI Bill of Rights first brought the couple to Vermont in 1971. Inspired by the course and the Green Mountain State, they settled in Vermont and opened a photography business first in Brookfield and then in Randolph, Bridge Hill Studio, running it together until retiring in 1997.
As part of their business, they rejoined the sports car racing world as licensed freelance photographers, taking and selling thousands of action photographs to racers and publications. They are also both past presidents of the Vermont and New England Professional Photographers Association and were both trustees of the New England Institute of Professional Photography.
Today, they are active in their community as board members of the Randolph Rotary, The Clara Martin Center and The Citizens Advisory Board for Reparative Justice.
A hobbyist woodworker, or wood turner, Arny continues to write and photograph for The Woodchuck Woodturners of Northern Vermont as their newsletter editor.
The couple also enjoys traveling, specifically Elderhostel or Road Scholar educational tours. They have been taking the tours since they retired almost two decades ago. A recent trip took them to Arizona, Utah and New Mexico, where they visited scenes from Tony Hillerman’s fictional stories of Navajo people. Those scenes from the Southwest make up their exhibit at Gifford.
“What we fell in love with about the Hillerman Country was the Navajo’s basic desire to be in harmony with their world. It’s a concept they call ‘hozho,’ and in their prayers, they ask only to walk in beauty. When you travel through much of Arizona, Utah and New Mexico, physical beauty is all around you,” notes the couple in a write-up on its trip, displayed as part of the exhibit.
The exhibit is free and open to the public. The Gifford gallery is located just inside the hospital’s main entrance at 44 S. Main St. (Route 12) in Randolph. Call Gifford at (802) 728-7000 or Volunteer Coordinator Julie Fischer at (802) 728-2324 for more information.