The Dire Need for Health Care in Wise, Virginia

Sr. Cecelia Cavanaugh
October 15, 2020

On Oct. 15, the Sisters of St. Joseph foundation day, I “visited” the Health Wagon in Wise, Virginia. I found our congregation’s values of meeting the needs of “the dear neighbor” incarnated in the mission of the Health Wagon, which provides medical care for the working poor in Appalachia.

Dr. Teresa Tyson and Dr. Paula Hill-Collins shared the energy and insights that fuel their mission. As they repeated the phrase, “This is the United States of America,” they named staggering statistics: a life expectancy shortened by 20 years on average, high percentages for illnesses, addiction, lack of medical insurance of working people who are earning their way out of eligibility for Medicaid and into debt and preventable illness.

A Catholic sister working in Africa to provide medical care to people on the margins. A young woman growing up in the United States, dreaming of being a missionary doctor. Thousands of men, women and children, many standing in line for days to have access to free medical, vision and dental care. These three came together in extraordinary ways in a mission field, but not in an African country, as one might conclude.

Sr. Bernadette Kenny, a Medical Missionary of Mary, met Teresa in Virginia, Teresa’s home state. Sister Bernie was missioned from Africa to southwest Virginia in 1978 to provide health care to people who are medically underserved. Teresa found her missionary calling in staying home, earning her nurse practitioner credentials and inheriting the directorship of the Health Wagon in from Sister Bernie.

Teresa and Paula, the clinical director and Teresa’s partner in mission, call this being “covered by Sister Bernie’s cloak” (1 Kings 19:19). As they described their efforts to Sr. Simone Campbell, they repeated the refrain, “This is the United States of America,” and it echoed in my soul. This is not a country in the developing world. My city is in one of the wealthiest nations on the planet.

As Sister Simone spoke with Teresa and Paula, I heard another refrain: “innovation, innovation, innovation.” This includes the Health Wagon, bringing clinical care to those with no way to travel to two health care sites. Drones deliver prescriptions. Telehealth provides counseling. It demands networking — building collaborations across faith traditions, health and educational institutions, for example — and creatively meeting needs as they arise.

As I reflected on these refrains and the way they are enmeshed in the work of the Health Wagon, I thought of all the people I know in Philadelphia working for justice and dignity for every dear neighbor. Teresa and Paula are sustained by that which energizes them and moves them to relentless action. “God provides.” “God does not call without providing the means.” “This is the United States of America.” We can do this.

[Sr. Cecelia Cavanaugh of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Philadelphia is the former dean of the School of Undergraduate Studies at Chestnut Hill College.]


This blog was originally published on Global Sisters Report.

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