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. 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 Bernie 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 Bernie, 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.”
Pioneer in health care
“Better for Being with You,” which is Sister Bernie’s reply when people ask how she is, is a blend of autobiography, medical handbook, cultural chronicle and journal of spiritual reflection. It describes Sister Bernie’s longtime work with Remote Area Medical (RAM) services as founder of the Health Wagon, a Wise County-based non-profit 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 percent 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.
The book also describes how Sister Bernie’s work has blessed her own life and how so many area people, Catholics and non-Catholics, work together to help others.
One of those colleagues is Tauna Gulley, who holds a doctorate in education and is a nurse practitioner, educator and Sister Bernie’s co-worker for more than 30 years – and a Southern Baptist minister’s wife – who co-authored the book. The two friends spoke recently to The Catholic Virginian by phone from the kitchen of the sister’s “log cabin on the side of a mountain, in a coal camp,” as Sister Bernie described it, in Clinchco.
Even though Gulley lives in Clintwood, a winding 10 miles away, she calls herself a neighbor.
“We wrote most of the book sitting right here at Sister Bernie’s kitchen table,” she said with a laugh. “We’re having a plate of potatoes and corn bread right now.”
People glad someone cared
Gulley first suggested that Sister Bernie, who was nearing retirement, write about her work and experiences as a way to guide others and offered to help her. The two began writing in September 2017.
The book has been well received by the community.
“It holds so many truths about our area, the challenges and how we can offer solutions,” Gulley said. “People are excited to be part of it and tell their stories and share what the care has meant to them, to know that someone cares about them.”
Another goal of writing the book is to have it read among the nursing, medical and social work communities, including students in those fields. The emphasis on respect and dignity runs throughout.
The foreword was written by author and former Big Stone Gap resident Adriana Trigiani, who writes: “Sister Bernie has served the beautiful Appalachian people with grace. This special servant of God, this humble and funny nun, is a dazzling light on the mountain.”
‘Pain doesn’t lie’
Sister Bernie’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.
One passage in the book tells the plight of a young man who needed dental care, which he could not afford. His infected teeth hurt so much that he had trouble working at his part-time job at a fastfood restaurant. If he missed work, he would not get paid, and then he could not pay his bills or rent. His teeth affected his whole life.
A client like this does not expect perfect teeth; he just needs help removing the disease, writes a volunteer in the book: “Just so they can smile, they can eat, they can speak normally. That’s it. Most people come here because they are in pain and pain doesn’t lie.”
“That’s a typical dialogue,” Sister Bernie said, noting that dental and vision care are desperately needed.
“I have such respect for the medical community here, especially the dentists and optometrists, who are so generous,” she said.
Many have donated eyeglasses, hearing aids and other medical equipment. She also notes three Catholic parishes that have given exceptional support: St. Joseph, Clintwood; St. Joseph, Clifton Forge; and St. Michael the Archangel, Glen Allen.
Light of Christ shines through joy, service
Sister Bernie’s work has earned her many awards. In 1998 she was honored to receive Catholic Extension’s Lumen Christi (“Light of Christ”) award — a national honor which recognizes extraordinary service to the poor.
“That tells me to be the light of Christ, be the joy of Christ, be of service to people,” Sister Bernie said.
“Very often I hear people call upon Jesus to give them strength, and that strengthens my own faith,” she said. “But it doesn’t matter which church people attend, or if they go at all. We all have the same God.”
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 are also Catholic.
Sister Bernie 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.
She sees much about which to be hopeful. A recent Medicaid expansion is helping many more people in the area, she said. A clinic in Clintwood, named after Sister Bernie, is being built this year.
“We’re working to break the cycle of fatalism,” of assuming that life will always be hard, she said. “People see their neighbors improving, and they want to learn how their lives can improve, too.”
After so many years of building friendships, growing trust, offering service and education, Sister Bernie 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.”