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Making a difference in Appalachia is ‘a privilege,’ says religious sister

CLINCHCO, Va. — When Sister Bernadette “Bernie” Kenny, a religious in the Medical Missionaries of Mary, brought her nursing skills to Appalachian Virginia in 1978, she was startled by the long and steep distances between towns.

Tauna Gulley
But the Boston native soon found that driving those routes to provide health care changed her perception: they seemed shorter because they were familiar.

That image also fits her career of caring for the people in the southwest corner of the state, very few of whom are Catholic: first they were far apart, and now they are closer.

Sister Kenny has written a book about her experience titled “Better for Being With You: A Philosophy of Care,” released in December by Pacem in Terris Press.

“Every day, somebody in need comes in my path, and it is a privilege to make a difference for them,” said Sister Kenny, 81, a nurse practitioner who served in Ireland and East Africa before arriving in Virginia. “I believe God calls me in that way, in the number of people I can help.”

Sister Kenny has worked for a long time with Remote Area Medical services as founder of the Health Wagon, a Wise County-based nonprofit organization with a mobile medical unit that, since 1980, has traveled mountain roads in all kinds of weather to provide health services to the medically underserved in southwest Virginia.

The Health Wagon, the first mobile health clinic in the nation, serves areas with poverty rates 70% to 140% higher than the rest of Virginia, an area where chronic unemployment, heart disease, diabetes, COPD, injuries and suicide are higher than elsewhere in the state. Struggles with substance abuse, addiction and depression are significant. Infant mortality rates have been high but are improving, through education and access to care.

Sr. Bernadette “Bernie” Kenny
Sister Kenny’s work takes a holistic approach to care, noting how all health is connected — physical, mental, emotional, financial, spiritual — and how one problem can create other problems but how one success can create other successes. She offers reflections and emphasizes the importance of nutrition, rest, exercise and stress relief in daily life in addition to overall health.

Sister Kenny’s work has earned her many awards, including Catholic Extension’s Lumen Christi (“Light of Christ”) Award in 1998.

“That tells me to be the light of Christ, be the joy of Christ, be of service to people,” she said.

With recent health challenges of her own, she has retired from the Health Wagon but still works part time to maintain her nurse practitioner’s license. Several days a week she is at Appalachian Family Care, a low-cost health clinic at the Food City grocery store in nearby Vansant, run by a nurse, Frannie Minton, and her family, who also are Catholic.

Sister Kenny and the clinic staff treat minor injuries and illnesses, prescribe and refill medications, provide exams, check blood pressure and blood sugar, administer flu shots and advice, refer people to other resources, and more. She sometimes even walks the grocery aisles with clients to help them choose affordable and healthful food.

After so many years of building friendships, growing trust, offering service and education, Sister Kenny said the area feels like home now.

Through it all, she said, God has been with her.

“There are ‘aha’ moments when I know that’s God, it’s not me,” she said. “I see supplies and medications show up in our cupboard after I was sure we didn’t have what we needed. I see people getting better after I thought they were going to die. That’s God at work.”

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