Poignant moment: ‘What is the county doing?’ about health issues

Selling public health, community wellness or even health insurance as sexy topics for college students is akin to offering spinach and Brussels sprouts sandwiches at a Super Bowl party. There usually aren’t many takers.

So it wasn’t a huge surprise Tuesday night that attendance at our third and final Community Connections forum for this school year at Elon University was the most sparsely attended of any we’ve held in the past four years. Factor in that it was a perfect April spring day – evening temperatures in the low 70s and plenty of sunshine – and it’s a miracle we got the 40 or so people who did attend. Usually our numbers are anywhere from 90 to 150.

But thanks to each and every one of those who did come, they saw an exceptional program.

Most of those in attendance, it appeared, were engaged in the public health world or were older readers of the Times-News, a co-sponsor of the forums with Elon. Our topic for the spring semester event at the Moseley Center was “The Role of Health and Wellness in the Advancement of a Community.” Very few students were there. No shock there, either.

In an off-hand observation panelist Katherine Johnson, a professor of public health at Elon, mentioned that students often don’t think about health insurance or their own personal health, either. Stands to reason. People in their early 20s with no major physical problems don’t even think about becoming sick, or paying for a doctor visit. I was the same way at age 21 when I graduated from college. After I finally landed a job as a reporter for the Reidsville Review, my father’s first question was “What kind of health coverage do they offer?” Because I was pretty clueless, I didn’t understand I was morphing out of the dependent category and into a financial problem. When he brought up health coverage at my new employer, I had no idea if I had any or not. It didn’t dawn on me to ask.

Thankfully, I did. My dad, who passed away at age 78 in 2008 after a lifetime of health issues, would’ve killed me otherwise and hashed that particular health insurance question but instead open a new world of legal problems. He could have pleaded justifiable homicide but based on my news experience this gambit has a tiny success rate.

What I can say, though, is even with the small number of people in the McKinnon Room on Tuesday night, it still rated as one of my favorite Community Connections programs to date. It was intimate and our panelists were well-versed when it comes to health issues in Alamance County. Kathy Colville, director of community outreach for Cone Health and Alamance County health director Stacie Saunders casually but knowingly discussed causes of poor community wellness from a variety of angles. It’s not a simple issue. It involves poor life decisions, available and affordable care, education, poverty, government and community services and dozens of other variables that might only be solved by a foundational change in how we all approach health. The discussion reminded me of an informative and engaging talk show on National Public Radio. Times-News digital editor Michael Abernethy filmed it for a Facebook Live post. Anyone interested can find on the newspaper’s Facebook page and scrolling down.

connections michael

Michael D. Abernethy, left, the Burlington Times-News digital editor takes video for Facebook Live at Tuesday’s Community Connections forum at Elon. Stacie Saunders and Kathy Coville are forum panelists.

Because of the small audience, few questions or observations were raised. Alamance County Commissioner Bob Byrd was the only elected official there – a major disappointment and community shame in my opinion. This is exactly the kind of thing elected leaders need to witness in order to order to understand issues before making decisions that impact the lives of thousands of community residents. Elected leaders truly interested in the people they serve should certainly learn more about the problems they face but mainly ignore it.

Two audience members were particularly compelling. An older man observed that substandard housing in sections of our cities and the county constitute a major health hazard for the people living in such squalid conditions. He equated it to poverty areas he saw in 1950s or ‘60s Alabama and chastised code enforcement or regulations by local governments that allow such sites to exist. And slumlords still charging rent in excess of $600 a month for people to live in such places were mentioned, too.

And a mother asked with some desperation, “what is the county doing” when it comes to health matters for residents. She told her story of moving to Alamance County a couple of years ago. Soon after her arrival her son suffered a traumatic brain injury that devastated the family. She found little in the way of help or support locally. Colville, who was familiar with the woman’s plight, acknowledged that her speech before the forum could be the beginning of finding solutions for others in similar situations in the future. I certainly hope it’s a springboard for more discussion about ways to improve the overall health of people here.

And that folks is why programs such as Community Connections matter.

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