RURAL Realities

Published 12:00 am Friday, February 22, 2008

The Black Belt is a region historically remembered for its rich soil and its rural culture that has produced such phenomenons as the Gee&8217;s Bend quilters, Thomaston barbeque and countless contributions to the story of the South.

But another reputation the Black Belt has struggled with is its ongoing battle with poverty and the issues closely associated with low income areas.

One of those issues, healthcare, continues to come to the forefront as numerous studies are published on the prevalence of serious health conditions such as diabetes, heart disease and others that plague the poorest parts of the state.

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In larger, more urban areas, simple access to healthcare is often taken for granted. In rural areas, with wide expanses of land separating communities and towns lacking facilities and healthcare professionals, simple access to healthcare is a reality that many families are faced with.

But with the help of a grant from the Bristol Myers-Squibb Foundation and a partnership between a host of healthcare and education professionals, residents in West Alabama will now begin to experience healthcare in a whole new way: Instead of having to leave their communities to get the assistance they need, they will now have it come to them.

This week residents of Hale County got their first taste of what is to come when a mobile unit, which is a trailer equipped with a certified registered nurse practitioner and a wealth of information, had its inaugural run in Faunsdale and Greensboro. Just a few of the things residents can get help with include therapeutic services, prescription assistance, housing evaluations and referrals and health screenings.

One of the partners in the program is West Alabama Mental Health, whose coverage area includes Choctaw, Greene, Hale, Marengo and Sumter counties.

Patricia Moore, assistant director for WAMH, was on hand for the first day of the program in Faunsdale on Wednesday. She said by lunchtime at least 20 people had come and received services from the unit.

Another partner in this venture is the University of Alabama Rural Scholars from the College of Community Health Sciences, which a five-year program that brings medical students into rural areas to participate in the field prior to their coursework in medical school.

Gavin Wilks, one of the scholars in the program, explained medical school is notorious for leaving gaps between the clinical study and practice of healthcare. A program like this, he said, helps those looking to go into the field of medicine to close those gaps even before they get to their first year of medical school.

Kelley Parris-Barnes, executive director for West Alabama Mental Health, has been working to get this grant program for several years. She, too, was in Faunsdale to see the plans come to fruition.

Other partners include the Department of Mental Health, Alabama Rural Action Commission, HERO Housing Supports, Auburn University&8217;s Rural Studio, Maude Whatley Health Services and the Delta Rural Grant program operated through Bryan W. Whitfield Hospital.