LEXINGTON — Ask Franciscan Sister Margaret Held and Sister Paula Merrill, a Sister of Charity, how long they plan to work as nurse practitioners in Durant and Lexington, they answer: “forever, or as long as the Lord wills it.”
The pair rotate working, one week at a time, at the Lexington Medical Clinic, a new facility, and the Durant Primary Care Clinic.
“The work is meaningful and it seems to be God’s call for us, and our communities have endorsed our being here,” said Sister Held.
For these two sisters and their religious communities, “here” means more than where they now live. “Here” means the Diocese of Jackson.
Both the Franciscan Sisters of Milwaukee (OSF) and the Sisters of Charity of Nazareth, Ky. (SCN), have long histories of working in health care and teaching, primarily with the marginalized and the poor, in the diocese.
In 1983, Sisters Held and Merrill worked in health care with Sacred Heart Southern Missions (SHSM) in Holly Springs, in the northeast part of the state.
From there they went to Oxford and worked for the Lafayette County Health Department. Later, they worked at the DePorres Health Center in Marks, which Sister Marilyn Aiello, a Sinsinawa Dominican and medical doctor, founded and was medical director of for many years. It was Sister Aiello, who had left DePorres and was working at the University of Mississippi Medical Center (UMMC), who alerted them to the need for nurse practitioners at the UMMC clinic in Lexington.
As the sisters moved from ministry to ministry they ended up living together.
From 2003 until last year, they worked at the UMMC clinic.
“We were down-sized,” said Sister Held.
Prior to that the clinic had cut positions to part-time but with the 2009 downsizing, the two nurse practitioners faced the possibility of having to move elsewhere to work.
“But the need was still here,” Sister Held said, citing dire health and poverty statistics in Holmes County and the lack of physicians.
“We felt committed to the people here and we try to live in the community where we serve,” she said.
“When you love where are, when you love the people and the people love you, you kind of sink your roots in a place,” Sister Held said.
Fortunately, for them and their patients, the sisters did not have to uproot to greener pastures. While at UMMC they had worked with Dr. Elias Abboud, a family practitioner.
He offered the sisters part-time work at his Durant clinic and shared with them his intention to establish a new clinic in Lexington, if they would work with him.
True to his commitment, work on the new clinic began in 2009. It was set to open in the latter part of the year.
But inclement weather delayed the opening of the Lexington Medical Clinic until April 2010. The new clinic is one of several businesses in the new building, which is located on Highway 12 just inside the city limits.
In addition to offices and a patient waiting area, there are three examination rooms. There are also three staff workers.
“We started with six patients a day but the numbers have built up to between 20 to 30 each day. We see babies up to the very elderly, but we don’t do prenatal care,” Sister Merrill said.
“Dr. Abboud made our being here, our staying here, possible,” she said. “He is really dedicated to the people here. He doesn’t toot his own horn but he really is doing a good service to the community.”
In addition to operating clinics in Lexington and Durant, Dr. Abboud works in the small UMMC hospital in Lexington and a hospital in Meridian.
He attends Gluckstadt St. Joseph Parish with his family and lives in Madison.
“The sisters committed to stay with me and work at the Durant clinic and at a new clinic in Lexington,” Dr. Abboud said.
“We have many patients there. If you treat people right, they will continue to come to you,” he said.
Patients can pay for services at the clinic with Medicare, Medicaid and other insurances carriers, he said.
“We help people the best way we can,” Dr. Abboud said. “We work with them.”
In addition to the UMMC clinic and hospital, a federally-funded clinic, the Mallory Community Health Center, is located in Lexington.
In practicing rural medicine, the sisters said they don’t have as many resources as more populated areas.
“There are not specialists here so we have to wear a lot of hats,” Sister Held said. “That is a real challenge because there can be a time lag in getting prompt information.”
For example, an MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) machine is available at the hospital one day a week.
“You can’t get it on a moment’s notice. The hospital has an emergency room physician but if someone has a heart attack they have to be sent to Jackson. If they want a cardiologist appointment people have to go to Greenwood, Canton, Madison or Jackson.”
The ailments they treat among their patients are asthma, and with Holmes County rated one of the most obese in the state, high rates of diabetes, hypertension and other chronic illnesses, including mental illness.
“Poverty is a huge stressor for people here,” Sister Held said. “One out of four adults is unemployed and 51 percent of the children live below the poverty level.”
For many health professionals and doctors, working in rural clinics is not where they want to work.
“And they should not be in rural clinics,” said Sister Merrill. “We go where the need is. We know our calling is to work among the poor and we are well-suited here.”
And thanks to Dr. Abboud, they are better able to stay put until “forever, or as long as the Lord wills it.”