Contributed by Rosalie Hammond, December 2015
I first heard about the Student Health Coalition in the spring of 1970 from Lark Hayes at the end of my freshman year. I had not read Saul Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals. I had not marched against the war (but wanted to do so). I was a naive girl from Georgia, at ease with small town life. The SHC job option was intriguing both because of the people who I had met involved in the project, being able to be in the mountains, and possibly having a chance to increase my medical and nursing knowledge.
Leah Albers, a nursing colleague at Vanderbilt, had been talking about the Coalition’s work in rural east Tennessee. She was the one who introduced me to Bill Dow and I started attending the physical assessment classes taught in the evening.. I told Bill I was interested in learning more. I guess to test my mettle, Bill took my inquiry and turned it into an astonishing interview adventure that left me wanting the job more than ever. This is the story of that interview.
In those days, Bill had organized a monthly trip to the mountains where a rotating group of doctors in private practice in Nashville would travel up to do consults for a day. Now, the drive to the mountains was easily four hours or more back then. So Bill had, in his inimitable fashion, secured the volunteer services of a licensed pilot with a single engine plane to do the transporting. The plane would take off from Cornelia Fort airport in Nashville early in the morning, land on a small strip near White Oak where clinic staff would meet the travelers and drive them to the clinic. Late in the day, everyone flew back to Nashville.
So Bill invited me to join him for a flight to White Oak. I was caught off guard. I liked how Bill was talking about it all. I couldn’t believe I might actually get a job in a rural place, working as a nurse, and that was maybe the biggest draw at first. But fly up to Appalachia and back in a day just to check it out? Really without thinking about it too much, I went ahead and agreed to do it, even though I had to miss some classes. It was sometime around February, dead of winter in Tennessee. I had never flown in a private plane. I had never been to East Tennessee. I remember vividly my first view of strip mining, from up on high (well, not SO high really, we were in a single engine aircraft!). “Has this area been bombed??” I shouted out.
Once we got to the clinic in White Oak, Bill got me to do a couple physical exams. I think in retrospect he just needed the extra eyes and ears to help get through the long list of patients awaiting consult from the visiting doctor. But in the moment, it felt like he was scoping out my skills, looking for signs of my comfort level dealing with the whole situation. I was instantly drawn to the intimacy of the clinic, the quality of the care, and in the end, to the promise of exceedingly meaningful work.
I must have passed Bill’s screening process because next thing I knew, I was on the Coalition team. By June I was working in Appalachia.