Nurturing Connection: The Art Behind the Science

This article was published in our 2015 Annual Report.

Drs. Ovleto Ciccarelli and Nicolas Benoit

Drs. Ovleto Ciccarelli and Nicolas Benoit

Every surface was polished and shining and immaculately maintained: this is the detail that comes to mind when General Surgeon Dr. Ovleto Ciccarelli thinks back to his first visit to Gifford.

This small detail reflected a sense of connection and ownership that still impresses him today: staff members feel connected to the organization and take pride in their work.

“The people who work here take care of what’s theirs,” says Podiatrist Dr. Nicolas Benoit, who took over as Director of Surgical Services when Dr. Ciccarelli stepped down from the role in December.

Building relationships—to employees, to patients, to the people we serve—is key to Gifford’s success. They form a connecting thread that keeps us in touch with community concerns and needs, and has sustained us through a changing healthcare landscape for more than 100 years. People feel they are an important part of the organization and they want to help make it the best it can be.

“Gifford is very well-managed and has a concern for its employees some find unusual in the 21st century,” said Dr. Ciccarelli. “Every employee is in the same boat. You see this in our quarterly staff meetings, in how people are treated, and even in how we’ve weathered financial ups and downs: there’s never been a layoff. Everyone’s expected to not panic, to ride with it, and to pull a little harder.”

Over the years significant expansion and growth has been driven not by a business strategy, but in direct response to specific community needs (improvements to ensure access to quality local care or to fill needs like sports medicine or senior needs).

Doctors Ciccarelli and Benoit have witnessed major changes in their area in the last 10 years: the addition of a third operating room; a new ancillary services wing and patient-friendly surgical services floor; a systematized approach to wound care; and a radiology department transformed by the most modern technology and the expertise of two full-time radiologists. They say that the sense of an “employee team” has contributed to the organization’s growth over the years, bringing a resiliency and nimbleness that has allowed quick and thoughtful responses to internal and external change.

“I’m always impressed by how fast we can band together to get something accomplished here,” said Dr. Benoit. “People are willing to give the extra effort—if something seems impossible, we break it down in smaller steps to build it faster.”

The Art Behind the Science

Across the organization people are encouraged to collaborate and to help bring new colleagues up to speed when needed. As a surgeon in a small community hospital, Dr. Ciccarelli says peer support is especially important.

“The biggest challenge for a surgeon in rural health care is isolation,” he said. “Electronic media has made it easier to stay current, but most of surgery is an art, not a science: knowing what to do when is important, but how you do it and how much to do—this is where having peers becomes important.”

For Dr. Ciccarelli, nurturing relationships is especially important for recruiting a new generation of community health care providers—so many students are now encouraged to specialize or to take positions in larger hospitals, primarily because of student loan obligations. Both Leslie Osterman and Rebecca Savidge completed rotations with him as students, and both are now practicing at Gifford.

“Direct patient care is an honor and a privilege. Believe me, nothing beats being at a bedside with a patient!” he says. “We need to show young people how rewarding caring for patients can be.”

Dr. Laura Barber Joins Chelsea Health Center

Gifford welcomes experienced primary care physician to community health center team

Dr. Laura Barber

Dr. Laura Barber

Dr. Laura Barber, MD, has joined the Chelsea Health Center, bringing more than 20 years of experience caring for families as a primary care physician.

When the private primary care group practice she had led in Abilene, Texas recently dissolved, rather than affiliate with a larger healthcare organization, Dr. Barber saw an opportunity to move to New England, where her son and sister live.

“When I visited the Chelsea Health Center, I liked what I saw,” she said. “I like to get to know people over a period of time, to work with entire families. This is the kind of patient-centered care I want to be doing.”

Barber earned a BS from Newcomb College of Tulane University, and an MD at the University of Texas Medical School, San Antonio. She completed her family practice residency at the Hendrick Medical Center in Abilene Texas, stayed on in private practice, and has been president of Abilene Primary Care Associates since July of 1996.

Born in Fort Worth, Texas, Barber often visited a small rural Eastern Texas town that inspired her first dreams of becoming a physician.

“I loved science and working with people, and medicine combined these interests. As it turned out, I can’t imagine doing anything else,” she said. “My first dream was to set up a practice over the post office in that small rural town I’d come to love as a child.”

That Texan town was later ruined by strip mining, but Barber and her sister, who has owned a cabin in Tunbridge since the early 80’s, say the area around Chelsea brings back memories of the rural community they had loved as children and “feels like home.”

The move cross-country makes sense in other ways as well. One of Barber’s three sons is working with a technology firm in Nashua, NH. And Barber and her husband, avid history buffs, have purchased the historic Federal-style Denison house in Royalton Village.

“I was up until midnight the night we purchased it, rubbing orange oil and bees wax on the dry, old wood paneling!” she said.

Dr. Barber is board-certified by the American Board of Family Practice and a fellow of the American Academy of Family Practice. At the Chelsea Health Center she joins physician assistant and Chelsea native Rebecca Savidge, and is now seeing new patients. Call for an appointment at 802-685-4400.

Starr Strong, Dr. Brian Sargent Say Goodbye

Chelsea community welcomes new caregivers

Roger Sargent and Rebecca Savidge

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

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

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

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

Strong is retiring after 21 years.

Ernest Kennedy and Starr Strong

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

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

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

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

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

Dr. Josh Plavin and Dr. Amanda Helper

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

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

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

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

Dr. Brian Sargent speaks

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

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

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

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

Starr Strong and Virginia Button

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

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

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

Virginia Button embraced Strong and didn’t let go.

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

Joe Woodin and Starr Strong

Gifford President Joe Woodin and Starr Strong share a laugh.

But Button was optimistic.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chelsea Native Rebecca Savidge Joins Chelsea Health Center

Rebecca Savidge

Rebecca Savidge

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Patients should expect a partner and collaborator in Savidge.

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

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

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

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