RALEIGH — Elaine Brown was having lunch at Chick-fil-A recently when a homeless man with open sores on his arms caught her eye.
She got him talking, and soon she pulled a bright yellow card from her back pocket, alerting him to Wake Health Services, a 42-year-old nonprofit organization that offers medical care to all comers, regardless of whether they can pay or have insurance.
Brown leads the volunteer board at Wake Health, which serves 25,000 people in Wake and Franklin counties. About a third of them are uninsured, many are enrolled in Medicare or Medicaid, and some are part of the programs homeless outreach.
But others, such as Brown, come to the organizations six clinics with private insurance, lured by the convenience and comprehensive approach to care, with many services, such as dental care for children and diabetes care, all under one roof.
Brown, 65, worked with community health centers such as Wake Health for decades as a social worker in other states. Since returning to her hometown 12 years ago, she has devoted much of her time and expertise to Wake Health, as well as other initiatives aimed at improving health care for vulnerable residents.
She played a large role in expanding Wake Healths recent expansion into Franklin County and in updating and expanding its services in other ways. She also advocates at the federal level, meeting with members of Congress to promote community health centers, which operate in part using federal funds.
Wake County Commissioner James West calls Wake Health a major player in providing health care for local low-income families. He says Brown, who recently won a statewide health advocate award, takes her work there personally.
She is very, very committed to the betterment of the community she grew up in, says West, who represents Southeast Raleigh and is the boards liaison for human services. Her work with Wake Health is definitely filling a very critical need.
I saw it all
Brown returned to deep roots in Raleigh after years out of state. She grew up in Southeast Raleigh, in a neighborhood her father, a brick contractor, helped build. Her mother was a local teacher.
The summer after her freshman year at what is now Hampton University, she returned to Raleigh as part of VISTA, a federal anti-poverty program that is now part of AmeriCorps.
She was assigned to visit homes in impoverished areas to evaluate residents need for community programs. She says her shock at a home only a few miles from her own with a huge hole in the roof spurred her interest in social work.
I had never seen anything like that before, she says. People said things were like that in Detroit or D.C., but this was practically around the corner.
She held a variety of jobs in New York and Virginia, following her husbands job, before settling in Atlanta for most of her career.
She worked at a sexual assault clinic and at an in-patient treatment center for adolescents with substance abuse problems. Another job had her arranging GED and ballet classes for a crime prevention program in Atlantas gritty housing projects, where gunshots greeted her first arrival.
In my career, I saw it all, she says.
It was in her work as a family planning counselor at a large Atlanta hospital that she first encountered community health centers. Her own doctor, a resident at the hospital, went to work for one, and she went along.
When I surveyed my choices, I was more comfortable and more impressed with the community health center doctors than with any of the other ones, she says. It was a different kind of choice because a lot of people with private insurance dont even know about them.
Later, she had a job traveling across Georgia making sure doctors who had gotten federal tuition reimbursement in exchange for working at community health centers met the requirements for that program.
A severe vision problem forced her to retire at 52 and return to Raleigh, though she has since had extensive surgery to restore her eyesight.
Using her experience
Brown says she was bored and a little depressed when she first came to Raleigh. Her Wake Health doctor, aware of both her experience and her need to contribute, suggested she join the organizations board.
Brown treats her volunteer roles like her job, with a lineup of several meetings a week that she virtually never misses. Yet, she says, she gets more out of it than she gives.
I get to use a combination of all of my skills and my work experience and all that Ive done since I first went to that neighborhood in Southeast Raleigh, she says.
Among her proudest accomplishments at Wake Health: its conversion to electronic medical records and opening its clinic in Franklin County, which had been designated as a high-need area by the federal government.
Brown contacted churches and school and community groups there to discuss services they could provide and helped spread the word once the temporary clinic opened in a shopping center. The newly renovated health center there now serves 5,000 people.
She says she relished the work, which brought her back to the early days of her career, when she would canvass a neighborhood to see what kinds of services were most needed.
Its all gathering information, meeting people, developing relationships, she says.
This year, Brown is serving on a statewide task force that is exploring how to increase the role of patients and their families in their own care as part of the Affordable Care Act.
Its a holistic approach to medicine she says was adopted long ago at community health centers, where patients routinely receive all kinds of care under one roof and treatments are carefully explained, even if that involves translating into other languages.
Brown credits this approach to the programs roots in the civil rights movement; community health centers began as a way to remedy disparities in health care in the Jim Crow South.
One of the things Ive always loved about them is they dont just hand you a prescription, she says. Its a dialogue, not a monologue. Were doing it with you, not to you.
She also served on the citys substance abuse advisory commission for five years, working on initiatives such as collection points for unneeded prescription drugs.
And her advocacy works on a personal level, whether its inquiring where a new baby is getting medical care or approaching the man at the Chick-fil-A. The reason, she says, is simple: People die for not having the right health care.
For information about Wake Health Services, go to www.whsi.org.
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