The AVA Center: It’s more than just another clinic, and the name runs deeper than the valley it sits in

The Autism Center is changing the lives of patients and PMC CEO Donovan Blackburn
Published: Aug. 14, 2020 at 3:05 PM EDT
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PIKEVILLE, Ky. (WYMT) - Pikeville Medical Center CEO Donovan Blackburn’s wife served on the board of PMC for nearly four years before he was named acting CEO.

In her time on the board, the idea of PMC expanding its reach in pediatrics was tossed around but was not at the forefront of the medical center’s plans at the time.

When Blackburn took over as CEO three years ago, he quickly shifted the thinking that pediatrics was a major player in both the future of Appalachia and PMC.

In June, the first phase of the Pediatric Hospital started when they opened the Appalachian Valley Autism Clinic.

”You know what we’re doing today, not just with our pediatric center, but with our autism center as well, is we’re changing lives today that will matter five years from now, ten years from now,” said Blackburn.

Blackburn and his staff have spent nearly $10 million on the hospital, a small amount compared to what it could have been if they had not used existing infrastructure as they did.

”Today we’re going to start crawling, five years from now we’re going to start walking and my hope is ten years from now we’re going to be running, and more kids can stay home, more people are going to be able, families are going to be able to benefit from what we’re doing today,” said Blackburn.

Blackburn is often a reserved man. He says that he tries to stay level headed but, when talking on a Wednesday afternoon in his office, across from the Speedway gas station in Pikeville, you can feel the emotion in his voice.

”We’re happy that we’re able to be just that. It’s fulfilling, it’s emotional and it’s knowing that my grandkids are going to have a different life here even than what I had,” said Blackburn.

A father of two sons, Blackburn is now the grandfather of two, a boy and a girl.

Blackburn will be the first one to say that things changed when he became a grandfather, and even more so nearly three years ago.

”Life changes when you become a grandparent because you see the world a little different,” said Blackburn with a smile peeking through his PMC branded mask.

Three years ago, he took the position as CEO at PMC, and just three weeks later his daughter-in-law gave birth to a little blonde baby girl.

Ava is her name, and Blackburn will be the first to tell you she’s the light of his world.

Ava was between one and two years old when Blackburn, his wife, and their son and daughter-in-law started to realize Ava was not taking to baby food, and she was starting to become separated from conversation and interactions.

After taking Ava to a Pediatrician at PMC, they were told they needed to take her to an autism specialist in Lexington and have her assessed for possible autism.

“Our world came crashing down as we sat in the room trying to understand what this was, and being told your granddaughter and daughter is on the spectrum,” said Blackburn.

A three-hour, one way, drive to Lexington changed the course of the Blackburn’s life, purpose, and relationship with his children, his granddaughter, and his role as CEO at PMC.

“We found out what everyone else finds out. To get a child assessed at 2 years old is a major hurdle in its self,” said Blackburn.

In the exam room in Lexington, Blackburn started asking technical questions, figuring out what was needed for his granddaughter and all other children on the spectrum. It was there that Blackburn started to realize he needed to bring an autism clinic to Eastern Kentucky.

”We realized then as she was talking and started sharing pamphlets what this was, again a way of teaching kids to deal with what autism is, and what autism is again, is just a different way that you’re wired and a different way you react to different circumstances, just different,” said Blackburn.

The CEO found out that the University of Kentucky alone, one of the premier autism clinics in the state serves nearly 150 children from Eastern Kentucky, a three-hour drive from where they live.

This struck a chord in Blackburn, causing him to come back to his board and start the process of bringing the Appalachian Valley Autism Clinic, or AVA Clinic to Pikeville, all influenced by his, now personal, battle with a family member who is on the spectrum.

”I’m now motivated and understand what this means because before I thought it was just a means for therapy. Now I’m understanding what we need to do,” said Blackburn.

With a building and now three specialists, everything is falling into place.

This building that sits directly across from the main PMC campus is changing the lives of children here in Eastern Kentucky, and that of the granddaughter of the very man who made it happen, because of her personal battle.

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