National Rural Health Day is November 15, and is designated as a time to highlight rural communities and increase awareness of rural health-related issues. Assistant Professor Kala Blakely, DNP, CRNP, NP-C, is a two-time alumna of UAB School of Nursing and board certified by the American Association of Nurse Practitioners, specializing in adult primary care. Her practice initiatives focus on providing primary care and women’s health to those in rural Alabama, and in recognition of National Rural Health Day, Blakely has shared how growing up in a rural community impacted the way she views and provides health care.
It seems like it was just a short time ago that my older brother and I raced our bicycles down the loose rocky, dirt road in front of our ranch style house in Horton, Alabama, in the northeast corner of the state. Our sweet pound pup, Taffy, followed closely beside us on the way to a small general store nearby. There we could buy an assortment of things and, on occasion, we might even leave the store with a free item, like a kitten (or two).
Our family was close friends with the town pharmacist when we were growing up, and I spent many summer days playing at the pharmacy, checking customers out, wrapping gifts and even putting mail in the boxes when a local post office was housed inside the pharmacy. Not only did we have great friendships with this family, but we also had the perks of the local pharmacist offering knowledge on how to best treat our daily ailments, most of which came from riding our bicycles on said dirt roads or overeating the junk food we might have purchased from the general store.
As time passed and we grew up, the local pharmacist, dentist and doctor’s offices were no longer able to meet our family’s needs. We were referred to a pediatric dentist that was a 90-minute drive from home — and this was one way.
As a grade school student, I was ecstatic at the opportunity to travel into the city for a dentist appointment. It meant no school for the day, eating at the restaurants we had seen advertised on TV and riding in the car on the smooth, paved roads for a really long time. Even with my childhood excitement, however, there was the reality of a health care shortage. My hometown was not able to provide the care my family needed, and the need to travel for quality health care is a reality many other families faced too.
As I prepared to graduate high school, I dreamed of moving to a bigger place. A city, something faster paced and something that did not close at night or on the weekends. I imagined a world that had no bounds.
I landed at UAB.
Even with my dreams of living in a city, while sitting in anatomy class with 200 students, I realized how great my rural living truly had been. I enjoyed being in a community where everyone knew my name (kind of like Norm at Cheers). It was great to have the local doctor say hello when he ran into my family at the supermarket.
After finishing my master’s degree, I took my first NP job in a small private practice, moving away from the city and back to a rural community. At the clinic one morning, a patient came in to tell me the news that a Jack’s restaurant was coming to town. I know my face had a huge smile on it, as I had an immediate flashback to my childhood. In that moment, when I connected with my community, I knew that the rural population was where I loved to work serve.
Four years ago, I had an idea to open a nurse practitioner-led clinic in an area outside of Birmingham, an area with a health care provider shortage. The clinic focus is not on advertising; it isn’t on numbers or growing a million-dollar business. Instead, the clinic prides itself on caring for the community, inspiring those that will one day leave for outside opportunities and cherishing those who are comfortable where they are.
Nearly two decades after leaving my rural hometown, I find myself pursuing new ways to educate nurses on how to care for people in a rural area. The UAB School of Nursing seeks to expand access to care for vulnerable and rural populations through programs such as the Graduate Nurse Education Primary Care Scholars (GNEPCS), which provides mentoring and individualized content relative to rural health issues, preceptorships with rural health providers and other opportunities to current NP students planning to provide care in a rural county after graduation.
As a preceptor for our Scholars, I hope to inspire them to stay in the rural areas of Alabama they call home to provide much needed health care to their beloved dirt road communities, where kids still ride their bikes to small general stores, and everyone still knows your name.
Some dust off that old dirt road may have clouded my childhood imagination, but my view is clear — you can take the girl out of the rural life, but you can’t take the rural life out of the girl.