Contributed by Rebecca (Becca) Joffrion Ingle.
I was born in Starkeville, Miss. in 1952, but grew up from age 5 in Huntsville, Ala. This small, sleepy Alabama town exploded in growth and diversity during those years with the coming of Werner von Braun and the Marshall Space Flight Center. There was a degree of international intellectualism, and many of my friends were from those families. Growing up in Alabama in the 60’s, tempered with the excitement of rocket science in my own town, helped to give me a broader world view.
I came to Vanderbilt in 1970 hoping to somehow find the spirit of my sister Emmy, who had died two years earlier as a Freshman at Vanderbilt, on her way to Florida for spring break. Her good friends Betsy Scott and Ginny Thompson welcomed me with open arms, and several years later introduced me to the Student Health Coalition (SHC). I had been a Biology major for the first three years, but after working in a hospital during the summers I discovered my passion for all things nursing, and transferred into the Nursing School for my 4th and 5th years. It was those summers, 1974 and 1975, that I worked with the Appalachian Student Health Coalition.
Without a doubt, those were the best summers of my life. It was my first exposure to true poverty, and also the first time I had experienced the generosity of those who had little, but opened their hearts, homes, and resources to perfect strangers. I learned to love the simple joys of sleeping out under the stars, the peace and beauty of the mountains, making jam and fried pies, quilting, and seeing the pride of those in the communities who were making access to health care happen. I saw the harsh realities of life as a coal miner, and I saw communities pull together to make their own fun and support each other. I learned that true sustainable change came from energy and leadership within the communities, not from anything we did from the outside.
In 1974 I worked with the traveling health fair as a pediatric examiner in St. Charles, Va., Ewing, Va., Robbins, Tenn., and Jacksboro, Tenn. In 1975 we went back to St. Charles and Ewing, and added Dungannon, Va. and Tracy City, Tenn. The days were long and exhausting, but it was good work. We never turned anybody away from the health fairs, even when our last exams were at midnight. But there was time for play as well—camping, singing, community dances and dinners, excursions to Big Stone Gap, Va. for pizza, and basketball. We formed a team and played against the community teams—I remember getting really peeved at Bill Dow, our physician and founder of the ASHC, because he’d make me finish writing up my charts before I got to play ball.
I tried to stay with Faye and Oren Elliott as much as I could. They lived in St. Charles and opened their home to so many of us those summers–we really connected. Their 3 children helped out at the health fairs, and just generally made us part of their family.
I took a lot for granted before those summers. Still do, but it changed me—it was a total immersion in the school of “what’s really important in life”. After my coalition experience I knew I wanted to be a nurse practitioner after I got a few years under my belt as an RN. The stars aligned a bit differently than I expected, and I was introduced early in my career to the field of oncology nursing. I’ve have had a wonderful career in that field for almost 40 years now, the last 20 as a nurse practitioner. My coalition experiences have continually informed my practice, always with an eye on listening, trying to assess and understand the environment from which patients come and how that impacts their health, advocating for affordable health care for all, and respecting differences.
Perhaps the greatest gift from my time with the Student Health Coalition has been the lifelong friendships that formed during those years. The bonds that developed doing hard but meaningful, community-changing work are strong. That we continue to gather for reunions, support each other during joyful and hard times, travel long distances to visit, speaks to how special those early years were for us, and how vital those friendships continue to be.