[Contributed by Tish Crane Rainey, March 2017]
I participated in the Student Health Coalition the summer of 1975. I had just finished my first year in nursing school at Vanderbilt with an eye on becoming a nurse midwife. That fall I was one of those senior students who participated in the Primex program, Vanderbilt’s first attempt at a nurse practitioner program. I had transferred as a junior from East Asian studies where I tried to understand and reconcile growing up in South Korea with living in the US. I was discovering the US as a new resident, and the opportunity to immerse myself in southern Appalachian history and culture was something I couldn’t miss.
The first part of the summer I participated in the health fairs held that year in Ewing and Dungannon, Virginia, and in Tracy City, Tennessee. I was acutely aware of what I didn’t know, but was so grateful to be included in the work of the medical team, and made to feel that what we were doing was important. At the end of the day and in the training sessions I remember much laughter – aided by the likes of Mary Mikell – as we learned new skills and related frequent blunders. I also remember the incredible hospitality and generosity of the host families, as well as the amazing food they served each day of the fairs. I have never forgotten the beauty of an early Sunday morning while canoeing near Dunganon, and of course the music that was present at most gatherings.
In the second half of the summer, I lived in St. Charles, Virginia, with Emma Woodyard, widow of a coal miner. She shared her 4 room little house with me, and I remember the many blankets that she had made, piled floor-to-ceiling everywhere; and the pinto beans, turnip greens and cornbread she kept going on the stove. Her onion cornbread was unforgettable. (I had never eaten any of these things before and I loved them!). At the end of the summer, she gave me one of those blankets which we use to this day.
My job was to pair up with a college student from the area and visit folks with chronic illnesses to make sure they had their medications and were connected somewhere for their medical care. My memory of those visits was that we spent much of the time on front porches hearing their amazing stories: the experience of coal miners, of immigrants coming in to New York and then being shipped to the coal fields, and the union organizing days. I remember an elderly gentleman from Romania who proudly showed me his union card from 1929! The college student admitted that he had felt belittled at college coming from Appalachia, but ended the summer feeling so proud of his roots. I think he eventually returned to the area as a teacher. I was even invited to attend a service at a Holiness Church, and was amazed at the transformation of my host from a subdued, prim individual, to someone who during the service let it all hang out.
I left that summer so grateful for the experience. I have never forgotten the exposure to the rich and painful history of southern Appalachia, the music, quilt making, the beauty of the mountains, the poverty, and the kindness and generosity of those who hosted us. I also saw up close a region that had received a lot of outside help from programs that did not understand the region and did not seek collaboration with the local communities. Poverty was clearly apparent, but so was their pride in their history and culture. I learned the important lesson that change really has to start locally and in ways the community is deeply invested. I appreciated that the Student Health Coalition understood this. I also believe the communities benefited from our energy and enthusiasm, and the opportunity our presence created for them to think together about their health needs. But, as with most experiences like this, I – and I think all of the team – left having received so much more than we ever gave.
Thank you, Student Health Coalition!