Volunteer Ideas for Nurses: The Health Wagon

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Nurses don’t stop caring when they leave the hospital. That’s why many look for interesting volunteering opportunities that can take advantage of their experience helping people.

If you’re a nurse who’d like to do some volunteer work, check out the work of The Health Wagon, which provides basic medical services to people in rural southwestern Virginia. This is a great example of applying nursing knowledge to local needs. Once you see how The Health Wagon works, you might be inspired to do similar volunteer work where you live.

What is the Health Wagon?

The Health Wagon is a nonprofit organization that provides mobile health services to the medically underserved in southwest Virginia, in what used to be coal mining territory. The program is run by doctors of nursing practice (DNPs) Teresa Gardner and Paula Hill-Meade, who have partnered for many years to provide free medical support to people in need.

Why southwest Virginia?

People in this part of Appalachia have suffered major blows since the 2008 recession, and many have yet to recover. In the Appalachian region, health care is scarce for a variety of reasons:

  • Patients live far from their providers.
  • They lack a means of transportation.
  • They don’t have health insurance.
  • If they work, they can’t afford to take the time off to travel to their health provider’s office and wait to be seen.

Most patients seen by The Health Wagon fall into a “population gap” of people who earn too much money to be eligible for Medicaid, but don’t make enough to buy health insurance. While they are stuck somewhere in between, their health continues to decline. Gardner says the state of Virginia is one of two extremes: pockets of very wealthy areas and very poor areas. The Health Wagon helps those in the latter area.

How does it work?

The organization serves several counties in Virginia’s Appalachian Mountains, which is why their website includes a mobile clinic schedule so people know where they can find the nearest services. This schedule is subject to change due to factors out of their control, but patients are able to call and schedule appointments as well.

What services do they provide?

Although their operation runs on a converted recreational vehicle, The Health Wagon is able to offer an impressive array of services. The DNPs on board can handle anything from acute conditions like colds or the flu, to chronic diseases like diabetes or high cholesterol. (They noted that their patients most often experience chronic diseases, for example, diabetes or breathing issues like COPD.)

In addition, The Health Wagon offers:

  • Low-cost labs and diagnostic services
  • Pharmaceutical Access Medication Assistance Program
  • Immunizations
  • Wellness classes
  • Referrals and follow-ups
  • Cancer screenings, including early lung cancer detection
  • Women’s health services
  • Cardiovascular disease outreach programs
  • Remote Area Medical (RAM) Health expeditions
  • Loan closet for medical supplies

How can you help?

Medical organizations around the United States have missions similar to The Health Wagon. Certain organizations focus on serving low-income communities where people cannot afford health care.

As a nurse, you have unique skills to help those in need. If you would like to volunteer in your spare time and help make a difference in the world, you might consider these organizations:

  • DirectRelief USA: Provides health services, medications and medical education to more than 23 million U.S. residents each year, most of whom have incomes far below the federal poverty level.
  • Hill-Burton Free and Reduced Health Care: Depending on their eligibility and acceptance, certain patients may qualify for the Hill-Burton program, which would entitle them to free or reduced-cost health services at various facilities.
  • Partnership for Prescription Assistance: Finds prescriptions and clinics that offer free or low-cost options for struggling families.
  • National Association of Community Health Centers: Focusing on the dire need of many struggling U.S. families, this group provides care to those who otherwise wouldn’t qualify for it.

Some organizations provide health care services to people in isolated areas. Nurses who work in rural health care provide medical support to those in need either by traveling to rural areas to practice, or by commuting to a rural facility. Organizations serving these people:

What are the next steps for this organization?

Gardner and Hill-Meade provide a much-needed refuge for those in need of health services. Understandably, the physical toll wears on all those who work on the Wagon, but earning money to keep the facilities working is a whole other obstacle. Because they are a nonprofit organization, every penny depends on grants or donations.

Patients donate what they can spare, but most often they pay for services in gratitude and old-fashioned thanks. The Health Wagon continues to stay in business, and as patients multiply, they hire new care providers when they can. Gardner says, “We hope to see The Health Wagon become a national model, and that could happen, given all the national attention we’ve received.”

The Health Wagon is a monumental reminder of what health care is at its core: caring for those in need. We certainly applaud them here at Wilkes University.

Are you looking to advance your own nursing skills, so you can help more people in need? Consider exploring Wilkes’ online graduate programs in nursing today.

Learn More: Click to view related resources.

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