Eastern Mennonite University

Summer 2008

They Sank Roots

In Under-Served Areas

Alumni who sank roots in under-served areas
See photos of science alumni who chose to care for the Amish or others in "under-served" rural areas

Richard and Elaine Stotlzfus moved to Harlan County, Kentucky, because "we wanted to be out of the mainstream," Richard '59 says. "We wanted to be where we would feel really useful."

That was 32 years, and two grown children, ago. Today they live in a log home they built about 100 yards from the duplex they shared with another Mennonite doctor and his family for most of their first 17 years in Harlan.

They shared the telephone, washing machine, vacuum-sweeper, and nurture of the four kids - two per family. Now they just share part of the driveway.

The Stoltzfuses and their former duplex neighbor, Dr. J.D. Miller, are the oldest of about a dozen Mennonites who moved to the coal-mining region of Harlan to be of service. They have stayed decades in the lovely Appalachian mountain region where the southwestern tip of Virginia meets eastern Kentucky.

Richard Stoltzfus '59 and wife Elaine

Richard is an internist. Elaine, who spent 1961-62 studying at EMU's seminary, is a certified health educator.

They work in clinics where warnings about the dangers of the abuse of OxyContin (a powerful prescription-only painkiller) are posted on the walls. They shop in places where the men in line ahead of them may have coal dust ground into their faces, necks and arms, making their skin pigment a color that fits no racial category - gray.

The waitress at the local Chinese restaurant looks young enough to be their granddaughter, but she already exceeds by three-fold her ideal body weight. Her friend, lighting up a cigarette outside the door, looks the opposite - as if a strong wind would carry away his wispy frame.

A tough place to fret about people's health? For sure. But Richard and Elaine love living and working in Harlan. They have since the beginning. They don't regard it as a hardship. They regard it as safe and supportive - a great place to raise children.

"People who don't have very much often have something else," explains Elaine. "Family is very strong here. They are just good, honest, hard-working people here."

"When patients come to see me, they don't come alone," says Richard. "They come with their husbands or wives, children, grandparents… whoever can come along in the family comes. Family means everything here."

Adds Elaine: "In many ways, being away from the more mainstream of American culture is not a bad thing."

Called to the Under-Served

Elaine and Richard may be different from typical American health-care practitioners, but they have lots of company among EMU's alumni group. In a 1985 chapel on the eve of his retirement, veteran EMU biology professor Dan Suter reflected on what happened to the 300 or so students he had taught:

"Many of these have or are practicing in third world countries or in deprived or underserved areas of the United States, devoting their abilities to alleviate suffering in areas often avoided by the medical profession."

Elton Lehman '58 was named "Country Doctor of the Year" in 1988 for serving a uniquely isolated group: the Amish. In a book and CD that chronicles his life, House Calls and Hitching Posts by Dorcas Sharp Hoover (2004), Lehman is portrayed as feeling undecided in the early 1960s between being a medical missionary overseas and serving a large Amish community in rural-eastern Ohio.

He came to appreciate the need of the Amish for "doctors who understood and respected their convictions for living simple, separated lives," wrote Hoover, and listened to God's call to settle in Mount Eaton, Ohio.

Similar to his classmates who went to Kenya, Ethiopia or Haiti to offer medical care, Lehman found himself needing to be the "jack of all health trades," from obstetrics (even home-delivering multiple sets of twins) to surgery (stitching up the victims of farm-machinery accidents).

Other EMU grads have stepped up to meet the needs of the Amish for scientific assistance beyond the level of their own education, which typically ends after grade eight. Veterinarian Harley M. Kooker '73, for instance, tends to the dairy cows owned by the Amish in Lancaster County, Pa.

In Dayton, Virginia, the Carilion family practice - staffed, in part, by three EMU alumni (nurse-practitioner Lisa Gallagher Landes '86, physician Robert Pence '87, and registered nurse Janet Sonifrank '71) - has a well-used hitching post in its parking lot for the convenience of Old Order Mennonite patients. Like Lehman in Ohio, Landes makes house calls as needed.

Before retiring in Dayton in January, Martha Rohrer, a 1969 graduate of EMU's nursing program, specialized in house calls to pregnant women, doing 1,103 home deliveries in the Shippensburg area of Pennsylvania and the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia. She was particularly in demand by Old Order Mennonite women.

In 1980 Rohrer completed a one-year midwifery program at Meharry Medical College, a historically black college in Tennessee, to earn her midwifery certificate and pass her licensing exam. From 1956 to 1975, Rohrer did nursing in rural Ethiopia where, out of necessity, she delivered hundreds of babies. She earned a nursing degree at EMU in 1969 while on furlough from Ethiopia.

Psychiatrist Harold Kraybill '61 specializes in treating Amish and conservative Mennonite in- and out-patients, working from an Amish-built cottage-like facility in a secluded corner of the grounds of Philhaven in Lebanon, Pennsylvania. Called the "Green Pasture Program," it handles Amish with mental health problems from all over North America.

Among the low mountains of Nelson County, Virginia, two family nurse practitioners, Lois '86 and Steven '86 Alderfer job-share so that they can be equally engaged with raising their three children. (Read more on the Alderfers....)

In Pulaski, Virginia, most of the patients of Donald E. Yoder, would be surprised to learn that their motorcycle-riding internist also holds a master's of divinity from EMU.

Fellow motorcycle enthusiast Samuel Showalter '65, practices part time at the Green Valley Clinic in Bergton, Virginia, located on a narrow rural road near Highland Mennonite retreat center.

Sticking Close to Home

The disparate communities served by alumni working in rural areas tend to share a devotion to family and place. Like the Amish, the residents of Harlan County generally stick close to home, even without restricting themselves to horse and buggy transportation.

"Some of my patients have never left Harlan County," says Richard.

But the ailments are different. Elton's pre-retirement case load - he recently handed over his practice to another family practitioner, son Brent '91 - revolved heavily around delivering babies and treating injuries. In Richard's internal medicine practice, he sees conditions linked to the ways that Harlan residents must earn their living and the lifestyles they tend to lead, such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes and chronic lung ailments.

Elzo and Jeannette Johnson
Elzo and Jeannette Johnson, patients of Richard Stoltzfus '59

One of Richard's favorite patients is 73-year-old Elzo Johnson and his second wife Jeannette. A few years ago Elzo snipped some nature scenes from a calendar and slipped them into Elzo-made frames that now decorate the wall in Richard's office.

Until June 23, 1983 - the date is etched in Elzo's memory - Elzo was a coal miner. Now he is on disability from black-lung disease. Despite his shortness of breath - it's not just the black lung, he still smokes unfiltered Lucky Strikes - Johnson maintains an immaculate, ranch-style house beside railroad tracks where coal-filled cars pass a half dozen times per day. He has improved the place himself over the years, installing log siding, wood floors, and a tin roof.

Elzo is not one to pull punches, verbally or otherwise. He talks about shooting and injuring some neighbors who were vandalizing his home and demonstrates his quick draw with his pistol. So when he says he likes his doctor and wouldn't go to anybody but Dr. Stoltzfus, he means it.

"Dr. Stoltzus, he'll talk to you. Some doctors say, 'Hello, how are you,' and hardly listen to what you say. They take notes and you're out of there," says Elzo.

Four years ago, Elzo took Jeanette, his wife of six years, to see Dr. Stoltzfus. She agreed with her husband: "A lot of doctors race you out the door, but he is concerned about you and he'll give you as much time as you need." So now Dr. Stoltzfus is her doctor too, treating her at age 55 for "hardening of the arteries."

"I've been to three doctors in my life, and Dr. Stoltzfus is the best," says Elzo. "My plan, Humana, is saying that they won't pay for it (his services) because he has to be in the plan and some other doctor is in the plan. But I will pay the 88 dollars myself if I have to."

Richard's not talking about retirement yet, but when that time comes Elaine and Richard probably will move closer to their two adult children. They are both graduates of Eastern Mennonite who have chosen not to settle in the remote area in which they were raised. Mark Stoltzfus '94 is an anesthesiologist with Commonwealth Anesthesia Associates in Richmond, Virginia; Jill Stoltzfus '91, with a PhD in psychology, is director of the Research Institute at St. Luke's Hospital in Bethlehem, Pa.

"The only time I go back to Harlan now is at Thanksgiving, but it still feels like home," Mark says. "I ran into my second-grade teacher at the mall, and she remembered me. I always run into old friends, and it is like I never left. We just pick up where we left off."

Yet moments later, Mark refers to interests he has developed as an adult that he could not pursue in Harlan, like scuba diving and competitive tennis.

"I never saw myself staying in Harlan permanently," says Jill, who was born in Haiti where her parents worked before moving to Kentucky. "These days when I visit my parents, I must admit to experiencing some culture shock, and it reinforces to me that I'm exactly where I need to be right now, living and working in the suburbs of Philadelphia and being close to where the 'action' is. Having said that, growing up in Harlan County helped shape my worldviews and values in significant ways."

Mark likes to get to know the patients he is going to "put under." The time he spends talking with patients pre-operatively, making sure they feel comfortable with the anesthesia process and with him, has resulted in thank-you notes - an unexpected gesture to someone in his line of work.

Mark seeks to treat everyone with equal respect - the janitor, technician, patient, desk clerk, nurse. "It is hard to say why I like to work this way or where it all comes from," says Mark.

His friends in Harlan wouldn't wonder. They would nod knowingly: "Just like dad."

See photos of science alumni who chose to care for the Amish or others in "under-served" rural areas...

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