Far southwest Virginia’s Health Wagon delivers care to the most vulnerable

Health Wagons
Updated: Jun. 22, 2021 at 1:11 PM EDT
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ROANOKE, Va. (WDBJ) - Before the pandemic, our neighbors in far southwest Virginia were making about $10,000 less than the average American.

And compared with other rural communities nationwide, Appalachia is older, poorer and on average more sick, not to mention the troubles brought on by COVID-19.

But unique circumstances call for unique solutions.

On top of a mountain in Wise County, Virginia Dr. Teresa Owens Tyson, DNP, FNP-BC, FAANP is on a mission to get as many of her neighbors vaccinated as possible, even if it means offering them to strangers on the side of the road.

“Do you need a COVID vaccine?” she shouts out the window to some construction workers. “We’re actually giving them at the health clinic at the Health Wagon at the top of the mountain; any of you guys need a COVID vaccine?”

Today, she is at the wheel of her Honda Pilot, making house calls for COVID vaccinations.

“Hello, Lindsay!” she calls to someone inside a home surrounded by mountain fog.

It’s just part of what she does as CEO of the Health Wagon, a conglomeration of stationary and mobile clinics offering free health care to the hollers and homesteads in rural, southwest Virginia.

“It’s got my cell phone number on it, y’all want a shot, y’all holler, okay?” she says to two more strangers. “And y’all just holler at me, and that’s my cell phone.”

She knows this community because she’s from this community.

A coal miner’s daughter, Tyson knows just how much central Appalachia has endured.

“We’ve got very bright hardworking people here and they just deserve better than this,” she said.

According to the most recent data from the Appalachian Regional Commission, the median household income in Appalachian Virginia from 2015 to 2019 was about $45,000. For non-Appalachian Virginians, the average was closer to $78,000.

The study also shows Appalachians are poorer, older and less educated than other rural communities in the US.

And while some gains were made following the Great Recession, surveyors note the economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic may have wiped out that progress.

The Health Wagon is trying to fill in the gaps.

It was started nearly 40 years ago by Sister Bernie Kenny in the back of her Volkswagen Beetle. Since then, the Health Wagon has grown tremendously, estimating in 2018 that more than 4,000 got more than $5 million worth of holistic care.

“Unfortunately here, we see such health inequities caused by, you know, we’ve had chronic poverty here,” Tyson said. “You know cycles of boom and bust with the coal industry, and coal is definitely not coming back now and so you see a population here that has been forgotten by America, been forgotten by Virginia in all honesty.”

The Health Wagon offers clinics of all kind, dental and eye care, and counseling, among other services, bringing the services to people, wherever they are.

“It’s all about removing the barriers. It’s not that people don’t want to take care of themselves, most people are very engaged in taking care of themselves. It’s most often that they don’t have the resources.”

It’s not easy. The operation runs on grants, donations, many part-time employees and volunteers.

“I mean that’s been the hardest part of this, is taking care of all the health care disparities that exist, but still having to worry about funding at the end of the day, you know, to fund our services. Although we do free care, the free care that we give is not free.”

But it’s the service to the community, and to God, that Tyson says keeps them at it day after day.

“I always tell the staff we’ve got to be about our Father’s work, we’ve gotta be busy, you know. When Jesus was here with his ministry on the Earth I’m sure he didn’t have a slow day, either, you know,” she said, laughing. “Not that we’re comparing ourselves to Jesus. But we feel that we are the hands and feet of Jesus and I think that’s what gets us through, because it’s more than a job here. It’s what God has called us to do and I think each of my staff members feel the same way.”

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