Can you remember the last time you made a promise? Outside of our marriage vows, most of us do not like to think much about promises because they remind us of our past failed personal attempts to watch less television or to floss with more regularity. Despite our best intentions, if given the option to take the easy road or the hard road in life, we all tend to revert back to the path of least resistance.
Stephanie Pate Greer, the Director of Behavioral Health at Appalachian Regional Healthcare System (ARHS), knows firsthand the danger of complacency. She and her team of nurses, therapists, crisis interventionists and psychiatrists have made a collective and unwavering commitment to always provide high quality behavioral health services in the High Country. For Stephanie, it was a promise made in heartbreak, steeped in love and maintained by her uncompromising resolve.
It takes a village
Stephanie with her mother Geneva Pate at Pope’s Family Center in Newland NC
Stephanie could run the cash register and count back change at 6 years old. It was at her mother, Geneva Pate’s side that she proudly learned the fundamentals of customer service while working at Pope’s Family Center in Newland, NC. In a town with only two traffic lights, she quickly became well-acquainted with everyone in her “Mayberry-esque” community. Between customers she liked to spend her hard-earned wages on peach Nehi and Whatchamacallit candy bars from the neighboring Avery True Value Hardware store.
She also enjoyed spending quality time with her father, Dallas, a retired North Carolina State Trooper, who she considers to be the most influential person in her life. Some of her fondest memories took place in his patrol car, where she was allowed to run the radar detector, wear his trooper hat and just spend quality time with her favorite law enforcement officer.
Stephanie Greer with her father Dallas Pate in front of his patrol car
“While we were ‘out on patrol’ dad also taught me a lot about life,” she shared. “Integrity was very important to my father. He taught me that in this life we are not entitled to anything. But with hard work, we can absolutely accomplish whatever goal is set before us. He also taught me that your word is your bond and that a promise made should be a promise kept.”
Stephanie was named Most Spirited in her high school annual. It was there that she competed in softball, cheerleading, public speaking and in other events as a part of Future Farmers of America, Fellowship of Christian Athletes, Future Business Leaders of America and in the Student Government Association.
She credits her zeal for life to her faith in God. “I think it is a normal part of human behavior to mess up from time to time. But when you discover that you have a God that loves you, and literally a village of people like ours supporting you, I think it brings out the best in people.”
Stephanie with bear cub on Grandfather Mountain
Throughout high school and college Stephanie worked on Grandfather Mountain. It was there that she started in the gift shop and then transferred to the role of zookeeper. In that position, she was tasked to take care of the black bear, cougar, white-tailed deer, golden eagle, and bald eagle habitats.
“Little did I know it at the time, but learning how to change my demeanor to accommodate where I was proved to be great foundational training for the work I do today in behavioral health,” she said. “I’ll never forget the first time I went into the cougar habitat. I was told to expect the 115-pound cat to pounce on me. I was told to face the cougar and to knock the animal back; this would in effect quickly establish who the alpha was in the situation. Sure enough, the cat leapt and I did everything wrong. I turned my back and screamed. I think we all do that at some point in our lives.”
Determined, she went back to the cougar habitat a few days later to face her fears. This time, when the animal pounced, she held her ground – a lesson learned and a fear conquered.
Lost and found
Stephanie’s interest in healthcare developed after she injured her knee cheerleading and had to endure multiple surgeries followed by physical therapy. Inspired by her own healthcare experience, she went onto Western Carolina University to study recreational therapy.
Her program required a four month onsite clinical internship. Stephanie chose to complete her internship at Broughton Psychiatric Hospital because it was close to home and more importantly close to her parent’s refrigerator.
“I was the first intern allowed to work on the adult acute-care admissions unit,” she said. “I learned quickly that at a state psychiatric hospital you see people at their lowest and sickest points. I also learned that there is absolutely no difference in the human beings in need of behavioral healthcare and you and me save a few circumstances. Circumstances could be life or chemical related, but they are still just circumstances. They are still people. A group of people grossly misunderstood and under advocated for. I had found my passion.”
Stephanie was hired as the recreational therapy supervisor for adult acute-care admissions at Broughton Hospital when she turned 21. Admittedly, it was a big job, and she leaned on her more seasoned staff to help her develop new programs, such as the first treatment mall, a school equivalent for patients suffering from mental illness. During that time, she was promoted several times and she went on to complete her Master’s in Business Administration at Gardner-Webb University.
Her hardest lesson learned however took place one day when she heard screams coming down the hallway of her unit. She raced to find a patient who had committed suicide on her watch. Devastated, she admitted to the patient’s family that despite checking-all-of-the-boxes in terms of safety and therapy, she viewed it as a personal failure. Through tears she made a promise to herself and to that patient’s family that she would never again be satisfied with just checking the boxes.
“By the very nature of working in behavioral health, you know that things like this can happen,” she shared. “But we have to be vigilant to guard against it. We can never be content or complacent. I made a promise that day and I was determined to keep it.”
After months of mounting pressure from a family friend, Stephanie finally agreed to go on a blind date with Allan, a Boone Police Officer.
“I was so nervous about the whole blind date thing that I made Allan pick me up from my parent’s house,” she said. “He then took me to see a church play, I figured that was a pretty safe first date. We got married a year later and never looked back.”
Fast forward 10 years. Allan had become a State Trooper, Stephanie was well entrenched in her role at Broughton, they now had two children and were “settled” in every sense of the word when she received a call from a headhunter in Arizona to inform her that a Director of Behavioral Health position had opened in Linville, NC. Assuming that she was unfamiliar with the area, the recruiter went on to try to “sell” the mountain community to his client. Stephanie smiled in a moment of serendipitous delight at the thought of returning home to her beloved Avery County.
She was hired for the position at Cannon Memorial Hospital by Carmen Lacey, now president of the hospital and a lifelong friend; and Chuck Mantooth, President and CEO of ARHS.
“I’ll never forget my first day on January 27, 2008,” she said. “It was an ice-storm and everything in town had shut down, but I knew that I had to get to work, especially on my first day by 8 a.m. So we parked my car at the bottom of our hill the night before and I made it in on time, an hour before everyone else. I guess you could say that I was eager to get started.”
[click_to_tweet tweet=”One-in-four adults will suffer from a diagnosable mental illness. Our goal is to meet these people where they are and to provide them with the care they so desperately need.” quote=”One-in-four adults will suffer every year from a diagnosable mental illness. Our goal is to meet these people where they are and to provide them with the care they so desperately need.””]
Meeting a need
And so it was that the behavioral health department formed at ARHS. Within her first year she reopened a 10-bed inpatient behavioral health unit in the hospital. This unit is fully equipped to provide psychiatric evaluation, medication management, individualized treatment planning and group therapy.
She also revamped outpatient behavioral health services to improve access to adult, child and family therapy. The outpatient program started with 12 patients and now maintains a caseload of more than 1300 individuals from across the High Country.
She then launched the Behavioral Health Crisis Team in 2011. The mobile crisis team is designed to meet and treat patients at whatever point they access the healthcare system. In many cases, the crisis team has saved patients from having to incur costly and unnecessary emergency department visits.
Despite these milestone achievements, the demand for behavioral health services continues to rise in North Carolina. As the only inpatient behavioral health facility within a 40-mile radius, Cannon Memorial Hospital receives more than 5,000 psychiatric referrals from across the state each year. Of those, the hospital is only able to admit an average of 560 patients into its 10-bed inpatient unit.
To help meet this need, the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services (NCDHHS) recently awarded Cannon Memorial Hospital with a $6.5 million grant, to expand the availability of behavioral health beds in the western region of North Carolina. The funding for this grant originated from the Dorothea Dix Hospital Property Fund, which was created by the North Carolina General Assembly from the sale of Dorothea Dix Hospital in 2015.
“This grant was an answered prayer for our community,” she said. “Not only does this create an opportunity in Avery County for us to continue to meet the medical needs of the community, but it also allows us to have an opportunity to expand and improve access to much needed behavioral health services.”
After months of careful planning, construction began last month to expand outpatient behavioral health services. Additionally, the grant will be used to create a designated 37-bed inpatient psychiatric unit within Cannon Memorial Hospital.
Thanks to other funding sources, the medical side of the hospital is also getting an upgrade. Once the two-and-a-half year construction project is complete, Cannon Memorial Hospital will operate as a Critical Access Hospital, fully equipped with a state-of-the-art inpatient 8-bed medical unit to meet the needs of the community. In addition to behavioral health services and inpatient medical care, the hospital will continue to provide imaging, laboratory, primary care, surgery, rehabilitation and cardiopulmonary services. This full-service medical campus will continue to serve as the hub of healthcare in Avery County.
“I live less than a mile from here,” she said. “So it goes without saying that it is important for me and my family to have access to good medical services. In a community of our size, it is unheard of to have access to primary care, preventative health and wellness care, behavioral healthcare and all of our specialty care. It is truly a blessing that I don’t think people in our community fully grasp.”
For Stephanie, everything goes back to that little girl behind the cash register with her mom. At an early age she fell in love with this community and she takes great pride in providing for its needs.
“My hope and prayer is that as we grow our services, the High Country will come to see that these patients are nothing more than our friends and our family members,” she said. “Unlike every other diagnosis, there seems to be a stigma or fear to talk about behavioral health. But the truth is that one-in-four adults will suffer every year from a diagnosable mental illness. Our goal is to meet these people where they are and to provide them with the care they so desperately need.”
In her office you will find motivational quotes hanging on the walls and pictures of her children prominently displayed on her bookshelf. She is proud to share that Zack, her oldest, is considering a career as a physical therapist. And that Reagan “Bob”, her 12-year-old daughter, has her mind set on following in her mother’s footsteps and becoming the next director of behavioral health at ARHS. It is clear to see, that like the rest of us, her children admire their mother’s heart and passion to serve others and have been positively affected by having the opportunity to be nurtured in the same “village” of people their mom did so many years ago.
[click_to_tweet tweet=”“I made a promise more than 19 years ago and I intend on keeping it,” she said. “I firmly believe that everyone has a purpose in life.’ Read Stephanie’s story. ” quote=”“I made a promise more than 19 years ago and I intend on keeping it,” she said. “I firmly believe that everyone has a purpose in life.”] In this line of work it is not about perfection, it is about progress. We do what we do in behavioral health because we love our patients. It is hard to describe just how blessed I feel to work here and to give back to the very community that has given so much to me.”
How do you define love? To every retailer’s delight, this question seems to always resurface at Valentine’s Day. For better or worse we have become conditioned as a society to celebrate the “heart holiday” with flowers, chocolates and greeting cards. Although these gifts are certainly appreciated, one could argue that dinner reservations and overstuffed teddy bears do not in and of themselves define love.
Mary Finley, the cardiovascular lab manager at Watauga Medical Center defines love differently. At the hospital she and her team work with interventional cardiologists to provide life-saving heart procedures for patients in need of a second chance. After receiving her own share of second chances in life, she defines love as an action, made evident through undeserved and unconditional grace.
On the run
Mary was the youngest of six children in her family’s home in Wilkesboro, NC. It was there that she shared a cramped bedroom with her twin sisters and spent most of her free time outdoors playing by the creek or at church.
“During those days our family made up half of the cast in the Christmas play,” she quipped. “I was that kid who even received the perfect attendance award at Sunday school.”
Her favorite childhood memory took place on Friday nights. After a busy week of school and extracurricular activities, all of the siblings would gather in the kitchen to drink RC Cola and make their own Chef Boyardee Pizzas.
“That was the only night of the week that we were allowed to have soda,” she shared. “I know it sounds insignificant in terms of memories, but my parents worked really hard to provide for all of us. Family nights were really important in our house.”
Mary got caught up in the wrong crowd however when she turned 15 years old. As a freshman in high school she met a boy and her whole world changed. She ran away from home multiple times before deciding to drop out of school, run away for good and to marry her boyfriend. To no avail, her parents pleaded with her to change her mind, but eventually agreed to honor her wishes and to stand by her side at the wedding.
“I thought I knew what I wanted,” she said. “I mean what teenage girl doesn’t know what they want? I found out years later that my parents prayed a thousand prayers for me. I needed every one of them.”
Reality set in for the newlywed couple when the first bill appeared in their mailbox. Unwilling to admit that she was out of her depth, Mary decided to return to the classroom and to work as a maid after school, cleaning houses for rent money.
“I’ll never forget cleaning the house of a young paraplegic lady,” she said. “We quickly formed a friendship and outside of cleaning her house once a week, I volunteered to go over to her home each day during my lunch break to help her get around the house. I think that’s when it hit me that I wanted to go into healthcare. I liked walking into a messy situation and leaving it better than I found it. I like to look at life that way.”
After she graduated from high school an old church friend and mentor recommended that she start her healthcare career by enrolling in the local radiography program. It was there that she discovered her passion for special procedures like heart catheterization and vascular intervention. Determined to leave house cleaning in the dust, the 17-year-old went on to spend every free moment studying her textbooks, working second shift clinicals and third shift x-ray.
All of her hard work paid off at the end of her program when she landed her first job as a radiology tech at Iredell Memorial Hospital in Statesville, NC.
Unfortunately, her marriage suffered and eventually ended during that time. Due to the unstable nature of their relationship, Mary would often have to hide from her ex-husband. “It was a bad time in my life,” she shared. “But, I would not let it define me. I was a very determined young lady.”
Embarrassed and feeling much like the prodigal daughter, Mary called her parents after five distant years to break the news. Surprisingly, within a few hours her parents and all of her siblings pulled up to her new apartment with truckloads of furniture and everything she needed to survive.
“There were no questions asked and no judgments made,” she said. “I don’t know of too many families that could have done that. They never gave up on me.”
Before long she remarried and applied for a position at Watauga Medical Center in Boone, NC. It was there that the late and beloved Director of Radiological Imaging Services, Wilma Price Redmond, hired Mary as a tech and then quickly promoted her to Special Procedures Supervisor.
“I had so much respect for Wilma,” she said. “Even when she was sick with breast cancer she continued to work, walking around the hospital with her IV pole and her chemo bag hanging by her side. I envied her grit, her kindness and her positive spirit. She taught me how to be leader.”
Mary’s whole world changed again when she had her son, Kyle, in 2000. Eager to spend those early years with her son, she left the hospital and took a more flexible job handling injury claims for an insurance company.
“As a mother, I’ll never regret that decision,” she said. “And that job also allowed me to work in a different side of healthcare. One in which I got to help patients outside of the hospital.”
But soon after her son started school Mary longed to return to the action. To her, nothing was or ever will be more fulfilling than a job in which she literally gets to “scrub in” to help save lives.
During her time away, Appalachian Regional Healthcare System formed and took major strides to improve heart health services in the High Country. Mary was delighted to learn that The Cardiology Center had opened as an outpatient facility on the campus of Watauga Medical Center to provide diagnosis and treatment for heart and vascular disease. A state-of-the-art catheterization lab was also added to the second floor of the hospital to provide much needed interventional cardiology procedures, such as coronary stents and implantable pacemakers. A second cardiovascular lab was added in 2015 to provide patients with better access to vascular surgery.
“We’re in the business of saving lives,” she said. “When it comes to the heart, every second counts. Thanks to these additions, we no longer have to send STEMI cases (heart attack patients) down the mountain for life-saving care. I’m proud to say that we provide everything from cardiac caths and stents to defibrillators and pacemakers to advanced vascular surgery right here in Boone.”
Mary was promoted to cardiovascular lab manager in 2013. As a “working supervisor” she works alongside of her team of technicians and interventional cardiologists to perform more than 1,000 procedures a year at Watauga Medical Center.
Another mentor in Mary’s life has been Dr. Paul Vignola, an interventional cardiologist that she has worked closely with for the last six years. “Dr. Vignola has my total admiration,” she said. “He has been a huge mentor for me not just in the cath lab but also in life. I cannot thank him enough for his support and guidance over the years.”
Shortly after returning to the hospital Mary’s mother, Carolina, was diagnosed with ovarian cancer and became a patient at the Seby B. Jones Regional Cancer Center in Boone. Since her diagnosis in 2007, Carolina has undergone more than 20 surgical procedures at Watauga Medical Center. Today, after losing her husband, Mary’s dad in 2013, she is still fighting her way through chemotherapy treatments.
Around that time Mary also divorced her second husband. “As you can imagine, that was a very difficult time in my family’s life,” she said. “And it took me awhile to admit that I was struggling with depression. To cope, I tried to channel my energy into my work. And then I would walk across the street to the Cancer Center to try to encourage my mom.”
But, as is often the case with parents, it was her mother that encouraged her. Carolina, an artist by trade, gave a beautiful print to her daughter that reads “She believed she could so she did.” These seven words etched in love beautifully described both mother and daughter. The painting is now prominently displayed in Mary’s office at the hospital as a reminder to never lose faith.
“My mom never lost her faith in me,” she said. “I truly believe that everyone deserves a second chance in life. I’m on chance 10,999 and I’m doing the best I can with it. And it amazes me that God has given me that many chances and he still has not given up on me. My family didn’t, my God hasn’t, and this organization hasn’t. I think everyone that walks in our door at the hospital deserves whatever number chance they are on. To me, that is more than healthcare; it’s love. It is undeserved and unconditional grace.”
Have you ever thought about what goes into hospital operations? Oftentimes we spend so much time thinking about doctors, nurses and patients that we tend to overlook those who work behind the scenes to take care of the hospital building itself. Each pipe, ventilation shaft, walkway and light bulb must be well-maintained in order to keep the hospital up and running.
No one knows more about hospital operations than Carlton Isaacs. For more than 41 years, Carlton has served as a caretaker for Watauga Medical Center in Boone, NC. During that time he has shoveled snow, waxed floors, washed dishes, pulled telephone wire, and even helped out in the operating room. He jokes that he knows the ins and outs of the hospital better than his own home. Recently, roles were reversed however when the 67-year-old caretaker relied on the hospital to provide him with lifesaving care.
Words to live by
Carlton was born and raised on a farm in Watauga County. It was there that his father taught him that ‘you are only as good as your word.’ This truth was lived out on the farm where he and his five siblings would milk cows, herd sheep and pull tobacco to help the family stay afloat.
For fun the kids would eat popcorn and watch Westerns at night. They also enjoyed chasing fireflies in the summer and sledding in the winter.
“Money was tight back then,” he said with a chuckle. “Since we couldn’t afford gloves, my mother would make each of us wear our wool socks like mittens in the snow. When they got wet we set them by the stove to warm, grabbed another pair and then back out the door we went.”
To help provide for the family, Carlton landed his first job in the environmental services department at Watauga Medical Center when he turned 17. His first assignment was to scrub and wax all of the floors in the hospital. Often viewed as a menial task, his supervisor noticed that he performed the job with a great deal of pride.
“Growing up on a farm will teach you not to be afraid of hard work,” he said. “No matter what you do at the hospital, your job is just as important as the next one. It takes a team to make everything work.”
Thanks to his positive attitude he was promoted to work in several other departments including plant operations and information technology. He was also recognized as the hospital’s employee of the year in 1991.
“I was shocked when they called my name at the banquet,” he said. “It just goes to show that if you stay true to your word, good things happen.”
One evening, while working second shift at the hospital, Carlton spied a pretty girl who was there to visit her sick grandfather. Unwilling to let the moment pass him by he summoned all of his courage to say hello. And so it was a friendship formed. Night after night the blushing teenagers would secretly rendezvous in the hospital cafeteria until one day when she informed him that her grandfather’s health had improved and he was getting discharged to return home.
“At that point, I knew I had to quit playing around and ask the girl out,” he laughed. “But, without a car or license I felt like a poorly equipped bachelor. So I asked if it would be alright if I called on her once I got my driver’s license and my own set of wheels. She agreed.”
After a year of saving, Carlton purchased his datemobile, a red 1968 Chevrolet 327 Camaro. As fate would have it the couple went on to have their first of many dates at Hilltop Drive Inn and got married a year later. Today, after 47 years of marriage, Carlton and Mary have two kids, three grandchildren and three great grandbabies.
To love and be loved in return
Recently, because of his history with smoking, his primary care provider Jerica Smith, FNP, and Dr. Kevin Wolfe, a pulmonologist at The Lung Center in Boone, NC, recommended that Carlton participate in the hospital’s lung cancer screening program. This low-dose CT (LDCT) scan is free and available as a preventive service for Medicare patients between 55 – 77 years of age who qualify. Private insurance plans also cover the screening program.
“I was surprised to learn that lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer death in the United States,” he said. “But, Jerica and Dr. Wolfe explained that with early detection, patients have a better shot at survival. Needless to say, I signed up for the screening.”
Unfortunately, the screening revealed a suspicious spot in his left lung. He was then referred to Dr. Tim Edmisten, a Boone native and general and thoracic (lung and esophagus) surgeon at Watauga Surgical Group. Dr. Edmisten and the surgical team at Watauga Medical Center were able to use an advanced minimally invasive technology called endobronchial ultrasound (EBUS) to determine that Carlton‘s cancer was detected by the screening CT scan at an early stage. EBUS combines traditional bronchoscopy (looking into the airway and lungs with a light) with ultrasound imaging to enable the surgeon to visualize and biopsy lymph nodes or masses beyond the traditional access points of bronchoscopy in order to increase the ability to obtain a diagnosis and determine the extent of the cancer. All of this can be done as an outpatient procedure without any incisions or need for lengthy recovery time.
Thankfully, the EBUS and x-rays confirmed that Carlton’s cancer was localized in the left upper lung at an early stage, which would give him a high chance of cure with surgical resection, as opposed to the vast majority of patients who are diagnosed with lung cancer at a more advanced stage. Dr. Edmisten went on to explain that less than 20 percent of patients with lung cancer currently survive the disease because it is not detected until a more advanced stage. However, the screening program at Watauga Medical Center enabled Carlton’s cancer to be diagnosed at the earliest stage which would allow an 80 to 90 percent chance for cure with surgical resection. Dr. Edmisten and the team at Watauga Medical Center proceeded to perform a thoracoscopic lobectomy for Carlton which enabled removal of the upper lobe of the lung containing the cancer through a minimally invasive technique involving two keyhole incisions plus a 1 1/2 inch incision utilizing thoracoscopic video technology. This advanced technique, offered to less than 50 percent of lung cancer patients in the United States who have surgically removable tumors, provides the benefit of less pain, lower risk of complications, and more rapid recovery and return to work in comparison to the traditional larger open incision thoracotomy.
As a result, Carlton was able to be discharged from the hospital two days after surgery and is thankfully on a full road to recovery.
“I’ve been around long enough to remember working with Dr. Edmisten’s father (Edmisten Heating and Cooling) to add Freon to the chiller at the hospital,” said Carlton. “Now, I have lived long enough to have his son, Dr. Edmisten, say a prayer over me before surgery. When you have a doctor like that and the good Lord on your side, not much can go wrong.”
Before he was discharged to return home, Carlton was touched by the number of hospital friends who stopped by to check on him.
“I had friends from all points in my career stop by to look in on me,” he said. “When you spend a lifetime taking care of a building, and then that building and the people in it take care of you, well, it’s just pretty special. I love these people like my very own family.”
Nearly two months after his procedure, Carlton, who still wears his 20 years of service pin on his belt buckle, is eager to get back to work on a part-time basis. When asked why he was only coming back part-time, he smiled and said, “So I can spend more time spoiling my grandbabies.
We all have preconceptions in life. Predetermined ideas of what is right and wrong based on our own upbringing, faith or lack of it, and individual life experiences. Preconceptions in and of themselves are not necessarily a bad thing, but sometimes challenging them can soften hearts and lead to We all have preconceptions in life. Predetermined ideas of what is right and wrong based on our own upbringing, faith or lack of it, and individual life experiences. Preconceptions in and of themselves are not necessarily a bad thing, but sometimes challenging them can soften hearts and lead to opportunities for love and grace. for love and grace.
Few people have borne witness to more changed hearts during moments of crisis than Melanie Childers, the Director of Pastoral Care at Appalachian Regional Healthcare System (ARHS). For more than 20 years her ministry has allowed people of all faiths to feel safe and spiritually cared for while receiving their medical treatment in the High Country.
A Family Affair
Melanie was born and raised with classical and sacred music in her veins. Her father, Terry, served as the music minister at their church near their home in Concord, NC. Her mother, Betty, served as the church organist and together they managed all eight of the church choirs, including Melanie’s personal favorite, the hand-bell choir.
Each morning Melanie would wake up early to read her Bible, write in her journal and practice the piano before heading out the door to go to school. “I put myself on a disciplined regimen as a child,” she said with a grin. “Before I graduated high school, I read through the Bible seven times and I wrote my way through a stack of spiral-bound notebooks. I always considered my journal to be my personal sanctuary, my private place to pour out how I was really feeling about life, relationships and faith.”
Although she enjoyed playing the piano, Melanie refers to herself as the black sheep in the family. “My two younger brothers, Brian and Jason, also shared my parents’ affinity for music and they went on to enjoy successful careers in it. I love music too, but I was called to take a different path.”
Melanie felt called into ministry at an early age. She took the initiative to pray, memorize scripture and to make her own profession of faith at seven years old.
She also managed to skip the stereotypical “preacher’s kid” stage of rebellion. Rather, her only complaint came at the hands of her parents, who insisted that she wore a traditional dress each week for church. A rule she loathed, but reluctantly followed in order to keep the peace.
“Sunday evening was my favorite night of the week,” she said. “My father would order pizza after service and we would all unwind together in front of the TV, watching M*A*S*H and Murder, She Wrote.”
Spreading Her Wings
After finishing fourth in her high school class, Melanie went on to graduate from Mars Hill University with a bachelor’s degree in Journalism. She then landed her first job as the managing editor for the American Choral Directors Association in Oklahoma.
“That job proved to be a cool juncture between music and writing for me,” she said. “But, after a year in that role, I still felt a tugging on my heart to go into the ministry, so I got back on track and went to seminary.”
Melanie struggled in seminary. She took pride in the fact that she could balance her school work with her job as a newspaper reporter. However, she sensed that not everyone was happy with her career choice. Outside pressure in the form of voiced disapproval came from those who felt that pastoral training at a seminary was intended only for men.
“I did question my faith during that time,” she said. “But, I believe that questioning one’s faith is a good thing. How can our faith ever be strengthened if it is not questioned?”
Perhaps in a moment of providential irony, the newspaper then assigned the seminary beat to Melanie. “I had to report on the political hot topics at the seminary that were actually affecting my life,” she said. “Ultimately, that experience taught me to research both sides of an argument. It also strengthened my own resolve to follow God’s calling in my life.”
Melanie went on to complete a two year chaplaincy program at Carolinas Medical Center in Charlotte, NC. For chaplains, Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) training is similar to what residency training is like for doctors. The training program brings theological students of all faiths into supervised medical encounters with patients in crisis. This on-the-job training equips chaplains with the skills necessary to care for the various spiritual and emotional needs of patients and their families.
“I was drawn to chaplaincy work because hospitals are a great equalizer,” she said. “As a chaplain, you get to work with and minister to a great cross section of humanity.”
“I always loved the mountains,” she said. “So when the job in Boone called back first I jumped on it. My plan was to stay for just a few years, long enough to become board certified, but this place kind of grows on you.”
Not surprisingly, Melanie keeps to a purposeful routine at the hospital. Each morning she reviews the hospital census in order to determine which patients had either requested or been referred to a chaplain. She then works with an interdisciplinary care team to make rounds throughout the healthcare system.
“There is still a preconception out there that if you agree to see the chaplain, then you must be near the end of your life. But that is a total myth. My goal is to address the patient’s holistic needs,” she said. “In a very short amount of time, I try to introduce myself, establish some rapport, and then quickly move beyond casual courtesy to dealing with some really deep stuff that might be happening.”
Trained clinical chaplains are often referred to as “Intimate Strangers” for their ability to carefully enter into family dynamics in order to provide spiritual comfort. At ARHS, Melanie and her team of staff chaplains are often called upon to provide crisis intervention, bereavement care, spiritual assessments, religious rituals, and pastoral conversations that are consistent with the patient’s faith tradition.
“I am really passionate about interfaith work and respecting all people for whatever beliefs they may have,” she said. “In this line of work, you have to remember that these patients are actually people, often nervous and outside of their comfort zone. My goal is to earn their trust and then to honor their beliefs.”
Some faith traditions ascribe to strict medical guidelines. Melanie is well-versed in this area and frequently makes notes in the medical record to ensure that faith-based medical requests are known and honored by the attending medical team.
Melanie states that her faith has grown and evolved over the years. “Working with people of all faiths and people of no faith invites you to expand outside the boxes of your youth,” she explained. However, her spiritual beliefs continue to guide her compassionate care for people.
Melanie’s job requires ordination and endorsement from a recognized faith group. These credentials are granted to her from the United Church of Christ. She is an active member of the High Country United Church of Christ, but also visits regularly in other High Country congregations, and occasionally provides pulpit supply for various churches. In 2000, Melanie became a board certified chaplain with the Association of Professional Chaplains. She is active on the state and local levels of her professional field, and served on the board of the Association of Professional Chaplains from 2004-2007.
Outside of her chaplaincy work, Melanie also has a master’s degree from Appalachian State University in Professional Counseling. “I’m often asked to provide counseling for patients in the at the cancer center. When that happens, I literally flip my pastoral care name badge over to the other side so patients can see that I am also a licensed professional counselor.”
She also oversees the AppFaithHealth program, co-chairs the hospital’s ethics committee, and coordinates the organ donation program, palliative care program, and supervises interns in both chaplaincy and counseling.
Despite the rewarding nature of her work, Melanie does admit that it can and often does take an emotional toll. To recharge, she meditates and enjoys spending time outdoors with her best friend and life partner Cath Hopkins. The couple tied the knot in 2014.
Belief in Miracles
After having spent the better part of her career ministering to families in crisis, Melanie was recently asked whether or not she believes in miracles.
“I do believe in miracles,” she said. “I have a great respect for medicine and all that it does, but I also know that there are other things at work, such as faith and prayer. I have witnessed remarkable things that I cannot explain away scientifically. That does not for me diminish their value and their reality. I guess we just have to put those things in the category of miracle.”
Now in her twentieth year of service, Melanie jokes that she knows where every tissue box is located in the hospital. To that end, she also keeps her “spiritual crash cart” well-stocked with warm blankets, Bibles, devotion books, rosary beads, anointing oil, music, labyrinths and some non-traditional items like coloring books.
“Experience has taught me not to make assumptions in life,” she said. “As a society, we are quick to judge and quick to put people into boxes. But, suffering often serves as a humble reminder that we are all more alike than we are different. My goal is to be truly present with each patient, to provide them with love, grace and spiritual comfort.”
Hi! My name is Susan (Susie) Morgan and I have been a volunteer in the Gift Shop at the Watauga Medical Center since October of 2016.
I retired from Appalachian State University in 2015 after 20 years in various positions, most recently as Director of Academic Testing. I am a big believer of giving back to the community, so after a year of “stagnation,” I began to look around for local volunteer opportunities. A good friend encouraged me to apply at the WMC Gift Shop and it has been a blessing to me. As my daughter says, “it keeps me off the sofa!” In addition to volunteering at WMC, I serve on the Board of the Women’s Fund of the Blue Ridge and on the “Bread of Life” committee at St Mary of the Hills Episcopal Church, which provides home cooked meals to Hospitality House, the local homeless shelter.
I really enjoy my two afternoons a week at the WMC gift shop. The hospital personnel are so friendly and welcoming. Plus, it is fun to run into friends who also volunteer in other departments around the hospital. I look forward to coming “to work” here at Watauga Medical Center and encourage other “retirees” to join me!
Barbara Robinson has been volunteering at WMC since 2006. She currently volunteers in radiation oncology and is a true blessing to anyone she meets. Below in her own words, Barbara shares why she decided to become a volunteer.
I attended Indiana Central College studying elementary education which I utilized as a substitute teacher for two years when our son started school. However, I soon realized that teaching was not my calling as I had always loved the medical field. So I began my seven years at Florida Hospital in Orlando, Fla, obtaining my accredited records tech certification and served in the role of supervisor of medical/legal information release. I then relocated to Radiology Consultants and worked for the next seven years as supervisor of Medicare reimbursement.
When my husband took early retirement, I followed and we began splitting our time between Florida and North Carolina. I knew I wanted to give something back to our new community and keeping my contact in medical records, I started volunteering at Watauga Medical Center. I also volunteer at ASU ushering at the summer arts series, at Watauga Humane Society as a greeter and with SNIPS (spay and neuter in a positive solution). I just enjoy helping people and animals find their way!