Rural Community Pitches in to Build New Health Clinic for Expanded Nursing Care

04/11/01    Portland, Ore.

The community of North Powder appreciates the health care services of Oregon Health Sciences University School of Nursing so much they're building them a new health clinic.

When Vicki Hill Brown, a family nurse practitioner, visits the North Powder School Clinic, she usually is swamped for three hours treating patients for everything from a possible broken hand, respiratory infections, head lice to sore throats.

"The whole time I'm there, students, staff, infants, families, people from the community, all come in for their health needs," said Brown, R.N., M.S. She works for OHSU's School of Nursing at Eastern Oregon University in La Grande. North Powder is one of the five school clinics she visits in Union County. The clinics are part of the Health Network for Rural Schools program operated by the School of Nursing.

During her weekly three-hour visit to the North Powder School clinic Brown treats up to 12 patients for a variety of health concerns. The 250 elementary and high school students as well as a few of the 500 people who live in North Powder, a ranching community located between La Grande and Baker City, use the clinic. Other OHSU School of Nursing staff that work out of the clinic include a school nurse, a mental health counselor and a family resource center coordinator. They work out of a closet-size room in the basement of the school's main building. There is no space for examinations, no space for lab equipment, no place for patient privacy and definitely no room for equipment storage.

But all that is going to change soon.

John Frieboes, the North Powder school district's maintenance director noticed the cramped space and the tremendous need for expanded health care for the whole community. Also, he knew the school needed a new classroom to replace an aging modular unit.

For many in the area, the clinic is the only place to get any health care. Many are uninsured and don't have a car to get them to other health care in Baker City and La Grande, which are about 25 miles away. This distance may not sound so far to travel, but this stretch of highway involves crossing a mountain pass that is often closed in the winter due to blowing snow. The drive is challenging for many who are elderly or poor. Poverty rates are high in the area and often those most in need of health care often have difficulties having adequate transportation.

"I figured we already had the OHSU nursing services, if we could take them out of the school building and get them into a larger space, then they could provide more medical care for the community and the school," Frieboes said.

The new building was estimated to cost about $97,000, a daunting amount for a community in which many people are underemployed after the closure of both lumber mills in town.

So, Frieboes spearheaded Classroom Project 2000: construction of a brand new building, to be located near the gym, for both a community health clinic and a fifth grade classroom. Donations poured in from private business people, organizations, large corporations and local store owners. They gave wiring, concrete, windows, sheet rock, paint, plumbing, excavating services, siding, heating and air conditioning systems, doors and other building supplies. A $15,000 grant helped the project fill in what was not donated. Free labor came from the 20 students in the two building construction classes at North Powder High School, who took on the project as part of their curriculum. Construction of the 600-square-foot clinic began in August and is expected to be complete by the beginning of the next school year. Project Classroom 2000 still is looking for donated furnishings and medical equipment.

Frieboes said the project has pulled the community together.

"It's also teaching the kids all different trades. It's been very positive for them. All day long they sit in class, struggling through the day. It's a release for them after school to get out and drive some nails," he said.

"This has been a really exciting project because it's such a grass roots effort," said Nancy Findholt, R.N., M.N. She is the director for the Health Network for Rural Schools Program and an assistant professor at the OHSU School of Nursing in La Grande.

She said the community definitely would benefit from an expanded health clinic.

"Many families there are struggling to make ends meet. There's a lot of poverty and there are a number of people who can't access any other health care. Even though our focus has been the school-age population, if someone disabled needed a flu shot, we took care of it. We were never able to promote this care because we didn't have a real community health clinic. Now the community is basically handing us a clinic," Findholt said.

The health clinic is in one of five rural clinics in the schools in Cove, Elgin, Union, Imbler and La Grande

Editor's note: digital photos are available on request of North Powder High School students building the new health clinic.