Community Health Workers a vital, growing career in Northeast Pennsylvania

The Wright Center's Community health workers

Community health workers play a vital role in improving the health and welfare of The Wright Center for Community Health’s patients. Community health workers at The Wright Center, including, first row from left, Bonnie Dunleavy, CCHW; Amanda Vommaro, CCHW; and Julie Makhoul; second row, Nick Sardo, Michelle Kobeski, Scarlet Pujols Recio and Stacey Major.

Wright Center utilizes emerging professional field to address the needs of patients

One of the fastest growing, most in-demand roles in health care today is one many people have never heard of: Community health worker or CHW.

A community health worker’s role can best be described as part social worker, part counselor and part advocate, with perhaps a sprinkle of magician thrown in, which would explain their ability to solve many of a patient’s most pressing problems.

For example, community health workers are deeply familiar with the social services network in a particular geographic area and can usually assist a patient with securing life necessities – such as temporary housing, utility assistance, transportation to medical appointments, insurance, food or clothing – when the patient previously had been uncertain where to turn or got stopped by roadblocks in the system.

“This is a good first step for a career in health care,” said Amanda Vommaro, CCHW, director of patient-centered services and supervisor of the community health workers at The Wright Center for Community Health. “It’s more like a social worker. You help people take care of their social needs so they are better able to prioritize and take care of their medical needs.”

Employment of community health workers across the United States is projected to grow 12 percent between 2021 and 2031 – much faster than the average for other occupations, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

President Joe Biden’s $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan called for hiring 100,000 community health workers over 10 years starting in 2021 to support the prevention and control of COVID-19. Many of these jobs, which are increasingly valued among the health care industry for reasons beyond the pandemic and its challenges, have yet to be filled in Northeast Pennsylvania, perhaps due to the unfamiliarity of the position.

Bonnie Dunleavy, CCHW, a community health worker at The Wright Center for Community Health Mid Valley Practice assists a patient.

Bonnie Dunleavy, CCHW, a community health worker at The Wright Center for Community Health Mid Valley Practice, assists a patient.

To help address the shortage, the Pennsylvania Area Health Education Center (AHEC) offers a 100-hour training program that is designed to provide the core competencies needed for work in community-based and inpatient settings. Community health workers typically need a minimum of a high school diploma. They must complete the required training offered by an institution such as AHEC as well as extensive on-the-job training at a facility such as one of The Wright Center’s primary care practices.

The Wright Center has hired five community health workers in 2022, and another three CHW candidates are currently completing their training.

The training provides comprehensive information about how to efficiently connect patients to appropriate health care and other social and community resources that are specific to the training site location, be it a rural community like Jermyn or urban center like Wilkes-Barre.

“We work with local food banks and shelters, public transportation and housing services, and other organizations to help people in our communities,” said Vommaro, “people who are our neighbors.”

The Wright Center and The Northeast Pennsylvania Area Health Education Center have formed a strong collaborative relationship to continue to recruit, train and certify community health workers from the region to serve the local community. Candidates are being sought from across The Wright Center’s five-county service area, including places such as Greater Scranton, the Wilkes-Barre area and Hazleton. Professionals who are bilingual are especially in demand.

These front-line public health workers assist in improving the quality of care and breaking down cultural, language and other common barriers to treatment. Overall, they can improve health outcomes and save money by acting as a bridge between patients and the health care and social service systems. By building trust with patients, they learn about their lives, their resources and needs, and the barriers they face to being as healthy as possible.

For instance, community health workers can help patients understand their health insurance options and navigate the application process, or help elderly patients secure needed durable medical equipment that they otherwise could not afford.

Bonnie Dunleavy, CCHW, spent more than 20 years working in health care before becoming a community health worker in 2018. “I started doing this before it became a position,” she said. “I really am a people-person. I always liked helping people, to try to figure out solutions to their problems and make a difference in their lives.”

One of the biggest challenges that both Dunleavy and Vommaro see among their patients is finding affordable housing.

“There is such a lack of public housing,” said Dunleavy, who uses every resource available to her to secure a safe, warm bed at night for her patients. “With the cost of rent, the cost of inflation, more and more people are finding themselves being evicted or they are choosing to live in their cars.”

Most people faced with this dilemma will try to live with family or friends for a while, bouncing from home to home, Dunleavy said. Others go to shelters, which begin to fill up during the cold-weather season. “We need more resources out in the community to assist people,” she said. “But we are doing the best with what we have.”

Dunleavy and Vommaro are currently among more than 500 community health workers employed in the Keystone State, according to information released in September 2022 at the inaugural Pennsylvania Community Health Worker Conference in Boalsburg.

Nick Sardo, a community health worker at The Wright Center for Community Health Mid Valley Practice, takes notes while talking to a patient during a recent visit.

Nick Sardo, a community health worker at The Wright Center for Community Health Mid Valley Practice, takes notes while talking to a patient during a recent visit.

Dr. Linda Thomas-Hemak, president and CEO of The Wright Centers for Community Health and Graduate Medical Education, views community health workers as a key to providing whole-person care because they help to identify and resolve social and economic issues a patient might be experiencing outside the clinic, such as food insecurity or lack of adequate housing. Through their efforts, the CHWs are helping entire families and connecting formerly marginalized populations to the affordable, nondiscriminatory and high-quality health services they deserve.

“Community health workers are essential members of our provider care teams who elevate our efforts to promote wellness and resiliency; to increase utilization of preventive services; to better manage chronic illnesses; and to address the complex socioeconomic determinants of health,” Thomas-Hemak said.

“These passionate and talented, front-line public health workers are trusted members of our team and the communities they serve,” she added. “By acting as front-line agents of change, they are reducing health care inequities and health disparities in our medically underserved communities.”

For more information about the role of community health workers or to apply for a training course, visit www.pachw.org/education-training. Current community health workers can apply for open positions at The Wright Center for Community Health by visiting TheWrightCenter.org/careers.

Scranton native serves community by filling cavities – and gaps in dental workforce

A Scranton native, Dr. Caitlin McCarthy helped to establish a dental clinic at The Wright Center for Community Health Scranton Practice in the city’s South Side neighborhood. She currently treats patients there and helps to train and mentor dentists enrolled in a one-year residency program.

Dr. McCarthy trains new dentists to provide care in underserved areas like her beloved working-class hometown

To become a dentist, Dr. Caitlin McCarthy reluctantly left her family and native Northeast Pennsylvania community, devoting four years to a dental school in Philadelphia and one year to residency training in the Lehigh Valley.

Her heart, however, remained in Scranton.

Today the West Scranton High School alumna – who says she had been “inching back” to her hometown through a succession of early-career jobs – is finally in the place she wants to be, working for a Scranton-based nonprofit organization whose mission matches her personal philosophy of putting patients first: The Wright Center for Community Health.

“The mission connects to my core values,” says McCarthy, 33. “I’m able to give my patients the care that I think they need, because with The Wright Center’s emphasis on access and affordability – and its sliding-fee discount program – we can make things happen for people. It’s not all about that bottom line.”

McCarthy joined The Wright Center in October 2019, jumping at the chance to help launch a dental clinic at its startup Scranton Practice in the city’s South Side neighborhood. Today, the busy dental clinic serves a diverse patient population that appeals to McCarthy’s blue-collar sensibilities, including Medicaid users and individuals from traditionally underserved populations who often face challenges in getting routine oral care.

About 120 dental patients are seen each week at the Scranton Practice. As is the case at many area dental offices, the wait for an initial appointment can be weeks – an unfortunate circumstance caused by a shortage of dentists in Northeast Pennsylvania.

Lackawanna, Luzerne and Susquehanna counties are designated by the federal government as Health Professional Shortage Areas for dental care, specifically when it comes to care for the low-income population. Public health officials and others have long recognized the barriers that low-income individuals often face in accessing oral care in the Keystone State, noting that in 2015 less than one-quarter of the state’s general dentists were accepting Medicaid as payment.

“For those in rural areas, it is not uncommon for individuals to … wait months to see a dental provider,” according to the state Department of Health’s “Pennsylvania Oral Health Plan 2020-2030.”

McCarthy can attest to how the situation frustrates patients who are left with few places to turn. “I’ve had a lot of patients come in during the past few years because their dentist stopped taking their insurance,” she says. “I also have had a lot of patients come in because their dentist’s office closed when the COVID-19 pandemic began.”

To help meet the demand for affordable, high-quality care, The Wright Center operates two state-of-the-art dental clinics, in Scranton and Jermyn, and expects to soon open a third clinic at its planned Wilkes-Barre Practice at 169 N. Pennsylvania Ave.

The Wright Center also has expanded its oral care services beyond basic cleanings and fillings and significantly increased its workforce in recent years, hiring skilled and compassionate dentists like McCarthy as well as hygienists, assistants and support staff. Together, these professionals strive to offer a level of care far above what is known derisively in the dental field as “drill and bill.”

The Wright Center’s team members instead use a patient-centered approach. They will ask the individual’s treatment preferences in cases, for example, where the options are to pull a deteriorated tooth or preserve it. And they will talk to a patient about the treatment’s expense and payment options.

Under Pennsylvania’s current system, Medicaid typically doesn’t cover crowns, root canals and other advanced procedures. The dental team will help the patient to explore other avenues of making the services affordable, including the organization’s sliding-fee discount program that is based on family size and income.

McCarthy enjoys being able to serve the whole community, and she appreciates not feeling the pressure inherent in some private practices to boost revenue. “I suppose you can find a reason to put a crown on any tooth,” she says. “But I recognize that people work hard for their money, and I’m not going to overtreat them.”

‘Defensive of Scranton’

McCarthy’s values and work ethic were largely shaped by her parents, both of whom were union members.

Her father is a retired electrician. Her mother is a retired public school teacher, from whom she picked up a love of learning and possibly her affinity for Greater Scranton. McCarthy fondly recalls how her mother made the most of summer breaks from school, shuttling her, her sister and brother to educational sites around town such as the coal mine tour, trolley ride and museum. 

A graduate of West Scranton High School, Dr. Caitlin McCarthy, 33, is glad to be serving patients from her blue-collar hometown and nearby parts of Northeast Pennsylvania.

An avid reader, McCarthy excelled in the classroom from an early age, but didn’t immediately consider a career in medicine.

Her main goal: Settle into a lifestyle similar to what her mom and dad had built for themselves and their children in the Electric City. “I remember realizing in high school that if I had the life my parents had,” she says, “I would be perfectly happy.”

McCarthy ultimately was drawn to dentistry. Her path was influenced by her own childhood experiences. She had multiple wiggly baby teeth and a few adult teeth pulled by her family’s oral care provider, a dentist whom she respected even during those early office visits for extractions. “My dentist managed to make each visit a positive experience,” she says. “In the end, it always wound up being, ‘Look what you did!”

As an undergraduate at The University of Scranton, McCarthy reveled in academia. She consistently made the dean’s list, was inducted into five honor societies and got chosen for an international service trip to Guyana. She graduated in 2011 with a dual major in biology and biomathematics, while also fulfilling the requirements for minors in biochemistry and English.

A Scranton newspaper reporter interviewed McCarthy around that time. The resulting article spotlighted her selection by the Scranton District Dental Society for its Dr. Bernard Shair Memorial Scholarship Award, presented each year to an aspiring dentist with a track record of service work.

In the article, McCarthy said she wanted “to be a dentist who is also active in the community.” She also revealed some of her favorite pastimes – watching NBA games and crocheting – and, when asked about her aversions, responded that she didn’t appreciate people who “trash talk” the region. “I’m very defensive of Scranton,” she said.

Bringing it home

Not surprisingly, McCarthy considered attending only those dental schools near her hometown, so she could easily get home on weekends to be with family, friends and her dog.

She studied at The University of Pennsylvania School of Dental Medicine, enticed there partly by what she could learn beyond the classroom walls. “I felt Penn had a lot of good outreach programs and community service requirements – things that would get me out of the dental chair and into the community,” she says.

McCarthy earned her degree in 2015, then completed a general practice residency at Lehigh Valley Health Network’s Muhlenberg Hospital before making the gradual progression back to her family and home community.

Now married and living in Luzerne County, McCarthy looks forward to introducing her own daughter, who is 1, to the places and pastimes she experienced while growing up.

Meanwhile, McCarthy gets to help train and mentor the next generation of dentists.

General dentist Dr. Caitlin McCarthy of The Wright Center for Community Health Scranton Practice shows a patient his sensational smile, the result of extensive restoration work. The Wright Center’s dental team offers high-quality, affordable care to individuals who have insurance plans, including Medicaid, and to the uninsured.

She serves as the program director for an Advanced Education in General Dentistry Residency, offered locally through a partnership with NYU Langone Dental Medicine. Since 2021, The Wright Center has served as a Northeast Pennsylvania training site for NYU’s dental residents, welcoming about two each year into its Scranton-area clinics. McCarthy especially enjoys watching as more women enter what traditionally had been a male-dominated field.

And in case there’s any doubt, yes, if The Wright Center had been engaged in a community-based dental residency program at the time she was training, says McCarthy, “I probably would have done my residency at The Wright Center.”

After all, it would have felt like home.

For information about dental and other health care services available at The Wright Center for Community Health’s primary care practices in Northeast Pennsylvania, call 570.230.0019 or visit TheWrightCenter.org/services.

After Wright Center residency, this physician ready for the long haul

Dr. Kevin Beltré realized that primary care was the perfect career choice for him while completing a Regional Family Medicine Residency at The Wright Center for Graduate Medical Education in Scranton. The former Philadelphia resident intends to stay and work in the area after graduation, delivering high-quality health care to Northeast Pennsylvania residents.

Dr. Beltré foresees career longevity in family medicine – and finds spot in NEPA

Rather than aim to retire at the earliest opportunity, Dr. Kevin Beltré plans to stay in medicine for the long run and be “one of those doctors working well into their 70s.”

“My professional goal is to keep practicing medicine and serving the patients and community as long as I possibly can,” says Beltré, 32, who is on track to soon complete The Wright Center for Graduate Medical Education’s Regional Family Medicine Residency.

To lessen the likelihood of career burnout, the physician already made one bold decision: He switched a few years ago from an emergency medicine focus, which he realized wasn’t the right fit for him, to the family medicine field, where he found his niche and an urge to make primary health care a lifetime pursuit. Recently the former Philadelphia resident made another significant life choice, one which demonstrates his commitment to his profession and to Northeast Pennsylvania.

He signed an employment contract with the Lehigh Valley Health Network that will keep him actively treating children and adults in the heart of Lackawanna County – where he attended medical school and where he is set to finish The Wright Center’s residency in December.

He expects to begin the job in early March 2023 at offices near the newly opened Lehigh Valley Hospital-Dickson City. For Beltré, it will be a major personal milestone. “I just can’t wait to be there March 6 as an attending physician,” he says.

For The Wright Center, it will signify that its mission is being met – and the organization’s still-unfolding success story continues to be written.

From its start in 1976, The Wright Center for Graduate Medical Education has been committed to generating a steady stream of competent, compassionate and community-minded physicians to help keep pace with rising patient demand and address persistent shortages of health care professionals in the region and across the United States.

Early proponents of the Scranton-based physician training program were especially interested in developing doctors who would choose to practice locally. These community leaders, including namesake founder Dr. Robert Wright, foresaw the coming challenge in filling the slots of retiring physicians and tending to the ever-broadening health care needs of an aging population. They launched an internal medicine residency, whose initial class consisted of six trainees.

In the more than 45 years since then, The Wright Center for Graduate Medical Education has grown in size and scope to reflect the community’s and the country’s evolving needs, now training about 250 residents and fellows each academic year.

Today, The Wright Center is proud to be the largest U.S. Health Resources and Services Administration-funded Teaching Health Center Graduate Medical Education consortium in the nation. It offers residencies in four disciplines – family medicine, internal medicine, physical medicine & rehabilitation, and psychiatry – as well as fellowships in cardiovascular disease, gastroenterology and geriatrics. All of its programs are accredited by the Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education.

Many of its learners have expressed an inclination to work in community-based settings, as opposed to hospitals, and to treat patients from traditionally marginalized populations. Ideally, after graduation, The Wright Center’s alumni will opt to use their talents in the Scranton region – as Beltré plans on doing – or in one of America’s many medically underserved areas, such as low-income urban neighborhoods and rural communities.

“Doctor Beltré’s journey in many ways exemplifies why The Wright Center exists,” says Dr. William Dempsey, deputy chief medical officer for The Wright Center for Community Health. “He’s a bright empathetic physician who grew up in this state, did his training with us and now will apply his skills and knowledge in this community for the benefit of local residents – possibly for decades.”

A journey with ‘two beginnings’

A fully Pennsylvania-made physician, Dr. Kevin Beltré completed all of his education and medical training in the state, much of it while in Scranton. He has accepted a job at a health network in Northeast Pennsylvania and expects to start in March 2023.

Beltré, born to Dominican parents and raised primarily in Philadelphia’s Somerton neighborhood, knew during high school that he probably was bound for a medical career.

His mother, now a psychotherapist, and an uncle who works as a radiologist in the Dominican Republic partly influenced his decision to enter the healing profession, he says. Even before graduation from The Roman Catholic High School for Boys, he became a pool lifeguard, received basic first aid lessons and bandaged a few young swimmers’ scraped knees.

Beltré’s father, an architect, was supportive of his son’s career pursuit, too, and celebrated when he landed a full scholarship to attend Penn State University.

“I was like a horse with blinders on, just focused on medicine in college,” Beltré recalls. “That was the only thing on my mind: getting good grades (so I would be accepted to medical school).”

A fully Pennsylvania-made doctor, Beltré ultimately completed all of his education and medical training in the state.

Admittedly not a straight-A student in college, he was nevertheless serious about his studies and found the city of Scranton conducive to his medical school experience – with fewer distractions than his hometown or other major metro areas. He graduated from what is now the Geisinger Commonwealth School of Medicine.

The existence in Scranton of both a medical school and a separate graduate medical education institution has created a blossoming physician workforce pipeline and become a drawing card for young health care professionals, some of whom earn their MDs at the school and then immediately enter one of The Wright Center’s residency programs for further training. 

The two organizations – bound by a shared interest in creating physicians ready to meet 21st century challenges – consistently find ways to collaborate and share expertise. Each is a community-minded institution that reflects the ideals of the Beyond Flexner Alliance, a national movement focused on promoting health equity and training health professionals as agents of more equitable health care.

Beltre was a fan of the medical school’s innovative curriculum model. It exposed students to a daily variety of medical concentrations, rather than immersing them in only one for weeks at a time. “It worked for me,” he says. “I might have gotten bored doing the same thing all the time.”

After finishing medical school and then entering an emergency medicine residency at a separate regional institution, Beltré recalibrated his career path and came aboard The Wright Center. Perhaps not coincidentally, at about the same time, he acquired a Siberian husky and named it Genji, a Japanese word meaning “two beginnings.”

Now in his career comfort zone, Beltré’s commitment to patients comes shining through in his daily work. The bilingual doctor frequently uses his fluency in Spanish to assist patients at The Wright Center’s practices in Clarks Summit, Jermyn and Scranton, and says he is privileged to earn patients’ trust.

“In family medicine, I have more time to talk with the patient, form a relationship with them,” he says. “Over the long run I’m going to feel more pride, more reward in working with patients in this situation, where there is a continuity of care from childhood into adulthood.”

He credits certain patients for teaching him lessons, in effect making him a better physician.

Dr. Kevin Beltré and his Siberian husky named Genji enjoy a stop at a popular downtown Scranton coffee shop, one of the places the resident physician finds especially appealing in the community. 

Likewise, he lauds the support of The Wright Center’s team, including Dr. Enrique Samonte, program director of the Regional Family Medicine Residency, and Dr. Maureen Litchman, associate program director.

He fondly remembers a social gathering held at Samonte’s house this spring, during which the family medicine residents were encouraged to sing karaoke, play video games and otherwise unwind. “It was cool to see everybody outside the academic setting just having a good time,” says Beltré. “That really stands out to me; it was just very stress-free.”

Achieving balance, avoiding burnout

Finding the proper work-life balance will continue to be an important issue for physicians, especially in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic – which is expected to exacerbate health care workforce shortages. “Burnout from the trauma of working through the pandemic could drive physicians to retire earlier than they might otherwise have done,” wrote Michael Dill, director of workforce studies at the Association of American Medical Colleges (AAMC), in a June 2021 “Insights” column. Dill noted that “within the next decade, 2 out of every 5 physicians in the United States will be age 65 or older.”

The AAMC has estimated that by 2034 the United States will face a shortage of between 17,800 and 48,000 primary care physicians. 

To help plug the gaps and boost the physician workforce, lawmakers have in recent years drafted bills that would allocate funding to start new residency programs or expand the number of residency training positions in existing programs.

In June 2021, for example, the Doctors of Community Act, or DOC Act, was introduced to support the development of 100 new residency programs and create an estimated 1,600 new residency slots. If approved, the legislation would result in the largest residency expansion since 1997. It also would authorize a permanent funding stream for the nation’s Teaching Health Center Graduate Medical Education program, eliminating uncertainty and allowing organizations like The Wright Center for Graduate Medical Education to manage their residency programs more efficiently.

If all goes as planned, Dr. Kevin Beltré will continue to wear a doctor’s coat and serve patients for many decades after completing his Family Medicine Residency in December at The Wright Center for Graduate Medical Education. Beltré, 32, says his career goal is to work ‘well into my 70s.’

While large-scale solutions to the physician shortfall are explored, The Wright Center for Graduate Medical Education continues each year to modestly contribute to the replenishment of the workforce, preparing doctors and other health care professionals to assume roles in areas of high need across the United States.

Its family medicine residents train in either a regional residency program based in Northeast Pennsylvania or a first-of-its-kind National Family Medicine Residency, which has four partner training sites at community health centers in Arizona, Ohio, Washington state and Washington, D.C.

Many program graduates remain in those locations or seek employment at similar health centers, where care is provided regardless of a patient’s ability to pay.

During residency training, doctors like Beltré hear about the importance of self-care for mental well-being and career longevity, and they can participate in The Wright Center’s growing number of wellness and resiliency activities.

His self-care regimen includes frequent trips to the gym, walks with his dog Genji, video games, drumming and socialization with family and friends.

For Beltré, another guard against career burnout is the intellectual stimulation inherent in medicine, which is a constantly evolving field. “You always have to be reading up on new developments, always be learning. I think medicine is the right niche for my mind,” he says. “I don’t see myself doing anything else.”

Learn more about The Wright Center for Graduate Medical Education, and its residency and fellowship programs, by visiting TheWrightCenter.org.

Archbald couple appreciates Wright Center services

Andy and Agnes Touch in their kitchen while Andy pours a pot of coffee

Andy and Agnes Touch are aging with grace and good humor in their Archbald home, thanks in part to the regular care that Agnes receives at The Wright Center for Community Health. The duo ‘thinks the world’ of her physician, Dr. Linda Thomas-Hemak, who has been providing care to Agnes for about
15 years.

Despite close calls, the Touch family avoids serious illness amid pandemic and praises the caring, close-to-home provider

Listen to Agnes and Andy Touch talk about The Wright Center for Community Health, and you might mistake the longtime married couple for paid spokespeople.

Agnes Touch praises the staff for its compassionate care. Andy Touch calls The Wright Center a “great community asset.” 

But this duo, each in their 80s, doesn’t get a penny for promoting The Wright Center’s primary care services. In fact, Andy isn’t even a regular patient.

The Northeast Pennsylvania natives simply value the help they have received from The Wright Center – especially during the COVID-19 pandemic when they and one of their daughters received treatment for the virus – and they want others across the region to know all that the organization offers to help individuals and families be healthy.

Andy and Agnes standing in their living room.

Agnes and Andy Touch, who are in their 80s, want more people to know about The Wright Center for Community Health’s varied services that have helped them so well, especially during the pandemic.

“More people should be aware that The Wright Center is not just a place where you go to see a doctor for a checkup,” says Andy, a retired insurance agent. “They have psychiatrists for mental health. They have dentists. They’ll do bloodwork for you.

“They’re trying to make it a one-stop health and wellness center,” Andy Touch says.

As longtime residents of Archbald, Pennsylvania, the Touches have witnessed The Wright Center grow from humble beginnings as a small graduate medical education program and a single clinic in Jermyn into a dynamic teaching organization with clinics across Lackawanna, Luzerne and Wayne counties. Agnes became a patient about 15 years ago shortly after she battled breast cancer.

Due to their health histories and ages, the Touches were eager in January 2021 to get vaccinated against COVID-19. From the earliest days of the pandemic, they had embraced basic precautions such as mask wearing. “I was even spraying our mail with antiseptic before it came in the house,” says Andy, laughing. “I mean, we were like germaphobes.”

Agnes made an appointment to receive her first dose of the Moderna vaccine at the Mid Valley Practice in Jermyn.

Andy accompanied her and asked if he, too, could get the in-demand, but not yet widely available vaccine. Dr. Linda Thomas-Hemak, who is The Wright Center’s president and CEO as well as a practicing physician, recommended he first get an exam that included a check of his vital signs. Andy consented – which turned out to be a potentially disaster-averting decision.

“She said my blood pressure was close to stroke range,” Andy Touch recalls.

Andy’s hypertension had previously been diagnosed by his personal physician; he suspects that worry – brought on when he or his wife undergoes a medical procedure – contributed to his notably high reading that day. Dr. Thomas-Hemak, acting in coordination with Andy’s regular physician, recommended a different drug and quickly facilitated the switch.

The Touches returned to the Mid Valley Practice as they became eligible for further vaccine doses and boosters, building their immune systems. That protection apparently paid off earlier this year when COVID-19 hit home. 

Andy and Agnes outside walking alongside a fence.

After feeling ‘sick as a puppy’ and testing positive for coronavirus earlier this year, Andy Touch received the COVID-19 antibody infusion therapy at The Wright Center for Community Health Mid Valley Practice in Jermyn. He and his wife, Agnes, who also was administered the treatment, avoided becoming seriously ill and are able to enjoy their usual activities.

Despite precautions, Andy tested positive. In quick succession, he, Agnes and their daughter Gina Touch Mercer, who was visiting from her Arizona home in late April, all turned to The Wright Center to receive treatment. Nurses administered the COVID-19 monoclonal antibody infusion therapy to the family members, and each avoided becoming seriously ill. 

It’s little wonder that the Touches say they “think the world” of Dr. Thomas-Hemak and the care teams at The Wright Center. “The workers are so nice and helpful to everybody,” says Agnes. “They’re like friends.”

A great headshot of Agnes and Andy

Getting vaccinated against COVID-19 at The Wright Center for Community Health gave Agnes and Andy Touch peace of mind.

Daughter Gina, who works as a geriatric care manager some 2,350 miles away, is relieved her mom and dad have high-quality, close-to-home care they all can count on. “I know that my parents are safe and healthy with the coordination of care and specialty services that Dr. Thomas-Hemak and The Wright Center provide.”

And as if on script, Andy sums up the situation by saying

“If you’re having a problem, they’re ready to try to help you solve it.”

For information about The Wright Center for Community Health’s many primary care services, call 570-230-0019 or visit thewrightcenter.org/services.

Olyphant resident sheds 70 pounds, finds new ‘comfort’ zone

Photo of Michaelene Davis with her boxer dog Rosie

Michaelene Davis, of Olyphant, finds renewed joy in walking her dog Rosie and other daily activities that had become fatiguing before she shed more than 70 pounds through the Obesity Medicine initiative at The Wright Center for Community Health. ‘I saw tremendous positive results,’ she says.

Michaelene Davis, 69, recaptures joy of volunteering and other activities with assistance from The Wright Center’s obesity medicine services.

Michaelene Davis attributed her sore back and daytime sleepiness to all kinds of factors until, finally, her physician helped her to confront the real issue: unhealthy weight gain.

The Olyphant resident, a retiree and frequent volunteer at local animal rescues, knew she had added pounds in the four years immediately after her husband’s unexpected death – a jarring loss that happened on the day before their wedding anniversary. The connection between her empty heart and expanding waist didn’t hit home until a visit to The Wright Center for Community Health.

Dr. Linda Thomas-Hemak, a practicing physician who also is The Wright Center’s president and CEO, knew Davis’ health and family histories. As a result of the trusted relationship they had developed over the years, Thomas-Hemak recognized something was amiss with Davis during a COVID-19 vaccination-related exam and took the opportunity to urge her patient to reflect on her developing weight issue and its possible root causes.

Davis followed her doctor’s advice: She did some serious soul-searching at home and during a follow-up visit to further talk about the matter.

Michaelene Davis walking her dog Rosie, a boxer in the park.

After receiving weight-loss assistance from The Wright Center for Community Health, retiree Michaelene Davis is no longer held back by symptoms such as a sore back, achy joints and daytime sleepiness.

“It was an epiphany,” says Davis, 69. “I had been using the food as comfort.”

“And the more comfortable I got,” she explains, “the more comfortable I wanted to be. It wasn’t that I didn’t know the good, nutritious things to eat. I just didn’t care and didn’t take the time to prepare them. I was strictly looking for what would make me happy right at that moment.” The patient and her physician, who was then studying to become board certified in obesity medicine, worked cooperatively to draw up a treatment plan. Davis made immediate changes to her eating habits, chiefly by decreasing intake of her go-to dish and admitted “downfall:” pasta. Soon after, she also began taking medications to control her blood sugar, which in turn soothed her wild cravings for carbs.

Since making those adjustments in her life, Davis has shed more than 70 pounds. Plus, as she is quick to point out, she is on a far better health trajectory. The results of her A1c tests – which are used to measure a person’s average blood sugar levels over the prior two to three months – have dropped from 6.9 percent (diabetic range) to 5.3 percent (normal range).

“I saw tremendous positive results,” Davis says. And she can feel the difference, too, she says. No more need for an afternoon nap. No more consistently sore back and aching joints.

Today, Davis can again haul grocery bags up her garage stairs to the kitchen without pausing every two to three steps to huff and puff. She walks her two dogs, Rosie, a boxer, and Taz, a pitbull, with ease, enjoying each outing rather than viewing it as an obligation.

Even her volunteer hours spent at local animal rescue organizations – Adopt A Boxer Rescue in Olyphant and Friends with Paws Pet Rescue in Scranton – have a renewed sense of joy. “I can get down on the floor and play with the dogs, then jump back up and move on, whereas before all of that was a struggle,” she says. “The funny part is, while I was struggling, I knew I was having difficulty, but I wasn’t seeing it for what it truly was.”

Confronting complex disease

Obesity – the nation’s most prevalent chronic disease – is associated with several of the leading causes of preventable, premature death, yet physicians and patients are sometimes hesitant to directly address the sensitive topic and tailor plans that allow for long-term success.

Obesity medicine is an emerging specialty, and its practitioners consider that excessive weight gain can be caused by multiple, sometimes intertwined, factors: genetic, nutritional, environmental and behavioral.

The Wright Center for Community Health recognizes the complexity of the issue and now offers obesity medicine services, aiming to improve outcomes for patients by combining evidenced- based methods with individualized treatment plans.

The Wright Center’s two American Board of Obesity Medicine-certified physicians – Dr. Jumee Barooah and Thomas-Hemak – and other providers use non-surgical approaches to help individuals better manage, care for and overcome obesity. “By recognizing obesity as a multifactorial disease, and removing bias from the equation, today’s medical professionals increasingly are prepared to give patients the facts and the tools they need to take charge of their health,” Dr. Barooah says.

For Davis, coping with excessive weight hadn’t begun in childhood or even young adulthood. Instead, the situation crept up on her late in life, after the sudden loss of her husband, Bill Davis, a construction worker and avid bowler, in 2017. Michaelene Davis didn’t sink into depression, she says, as much as a prolonged “pity party.” To handle the shock and loneliness of the situation, she sought solace in comfort foods. Doughy pierogis. Noodle-laden haluski. Other white flour-filled pastas. Rich sauces and soups.

Her weight gain compounded during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic and long stretches of relative inactivity as she hunkered down at home, she says. Eating solo, she often gulped her meals in only a few minutes instead of savoring them.

As part of her weight-loss journey, she decided to change that pattern and slow down the consumption of her evening meals. “I’m an avid reader,” she says. “So, I worked out a system where I’d cut my piece of fish or chicken, and I’d eat it and then I’d put down my fork and I’d read a little on my Kindle. I kind of relaxed and slowed my tempo, and that worked well for me.”

A portrait of Michaelene Davis in the park.

Michaelene Davis experienced unhealthy weight gain later in life, after the sudden and unexpected loss of her husband. ‘I had been using the food as comfort,’ she says. Today she has dropped the extra pounds and embraced a better diet, even making her own low-sugar salad dressings.

Quieting the ‘demons’

Davis, of course, wasn’t alone in determining how to adopt healthier eating habits.

She benefited from The Wright Center’s team-based approach to health care, meeting regularly with Thomas-Hemak and scheduling two consultations with registered dietitian Walter Wanas, the organization’s director of lifestyle modification and preventive medicine. Wanas spoke to her about choosing the right foods based on their ranking in the glycemic index – a system for gauging how fast and how high certain foods tend to raise blood sugar.

In the earliest days of her treatment, Davis had battled food cravings that she wrongly blamed on poor willpower. Turns out, the problem was metabolic.

“I had become insulin resistant,” says Davis. “Correcting my diet, along with starting the medication, turned my insulin resistance around, which quieted the demons in my head that werescreaming for those carbs.”

Based on Davis’ new understanding of the glycemic index, she started hunting for online resources to find the best food choices. She even began experimenting with recipes, for example opting to make her own salad dressing rather than reach for the sugary, store-bought varieties.

She reintroduced fruits and vegetables into every meal. Now she frequently makes fish the centerpiece of a meal and, if she adds pasta to the menu, uses it only in proper proportions. And if she goes out for a treat, it’s often not to a restaurant but rather a retail store where she can look for clothes in sizes that fit her slimmer figure.

“Now instead of being comforted by food,” she says, “I get comforted shopping for a new pair of jeans!”

For more information about The Wright Center’s obesity medicine services, call 570.230.0019 or visit TheWrightCenter.org/services.

Wright Center dental team salvages man’s damaged teeth, confidence

No longer ashamed of his teeth, James Coursen can head out to public places with his friends and family, including mother Jennifer Coursen, and not feel as if he has to hide his mouth behind his hand or a mask.

Scranton resident beams after getting care he wanted at an affordable price

James Coursen shielded his top teeth from view all the time, even adopting an awkward way of holding his hand and fork in front of his mouth during meals with friends.

His smile had become a cause of embarrassment. His mouth, a source of misery.

The Scranton resident, now 21, sustained an accidental injury in 2019 around the time he graduated from high school. A heavy metal object fell and smashed into his mouth, he says, shattering the enamel across most of his top row of teeth.

Coursen, like many young adults who are only beginning their careers, had neither a high-paying job nor a top-shelf insurance plan to pay for oral care, so he coped with the situation as best he could. When he chewed, he pushed his food away from the injured teeth and carefully used only the back-right corner of his mouth, where his molars could do the work. He stopped eating all sting-inducing cold foods, including ice cream.

But he could no longer properly care for his teeth with his typical daily regimen; even the simple act of brushing or getting minty gel on the damaged, sensitive areas would radiate extreme pain. Over the next year, the situation only worsened. “It felt like my entire head was throbbing constantly,” he says.

At wit’s end, Coursen visited the local office of a large dental chain. It was recommended that all his damaged teeth be pulled. It seemed as if before he even reached the age to legally consume an alcoholic beverage, he would be fitted for dentures – an ego-bruising prospect that he wanted to avoid, he says.

Then a neighbor suggested that he visit The Wright Center for Community Health.

Image of James Coursen's dental before and after.

With damaged teeth, even basic oral care like brushing became painful for James Coursen. He required multiple dental procedures conducted over many months to regain a healthy mouth, as reflected in these before and after photos.

Coursen scheduled an exam at The Wright Center’s Scranton Practice, where he met a caring dental team whose members recognized the severity of the situation, soothed his nerves about needles and the complexity of his case, and soon began a long-term restoration plan that called for minimal, if any, extractions.

“When The Wright Center’s dental team told me that they like to save as many teeth as possible no matter the challenge, I was very happy,” he recalls. “I could have cried, I was so happy.”

To meet a significant demand in Northeast Pennsylvania for affordable, high-quality dental care, The Wright Center has in recent years hired more dental professionals and greatly expanded its services.

Today it offers exams, cleanings, X-rays, fillings, oral cancer screenings, emergency services, extractions, crowns, bridges, root canals, implants and denture care.

The Wright Center currently operates two state-of-the-art dental clinics, one at its Mid Valley Practice in Jermyn, which has six dental chairs, and one at its Scranton Practice, with four chairs. It also schedules dental clinics each month at its Hawley Practice in Wayne County and can deploy its mobile medical/dental vehicle, called Driving Better Health, to the region’s rural and other underserved communities.

“If you haven’t visited a dentist for a while, don’t be afraid or embarrassed to make an appointment with us,” says Dr. Caitlin McCarthy. “The Wright Center is committed to providing excellent care to every single person, no matter who they are or where they come from or their financial situation.” 

McCarthy is one of the providers who assisted Coursen during his extensive treatment, and she serves as program director for an Advanced Education in General Dentistry Residency offered at The Wright Center since 2021 through a partnership with NYU Langone Dental Medicine. 

Dentists in the residency training program gain valuable experience while also helping The Wright Center by further expanding access to dental care in the region, where oral health can be negatively affected by factors including high rates of tobacco and illicit drug use, a lack of fluoridated public water supplies and persistent pockets of poverty.

After a long road, there’s reason to smile

The team working with Coursen ultimately performed nearly a half-dozen root canals and did crown work and fillings over multiple visits. The process began around March 2021 and ended in June 2022. They succeeded in not only filling the gaps where decay had spoiled Coursen’s once-bright smile, but also rebuilding the esteem of a young man who admittedly viewed pandemic masks as a mixed blessing, because they hid his face.

“I was very self-conscious then about my mouth,” he says. “Today, as you can see, I have proper teeth. I can actually smile without being worried about it. I’m definitely more confident.” 

A “Star Wars” devotee and gamer, Coursen participated during his high school years in graphic arts training through the Career Technology Center of Lackawanna County. He twice advanced to state-level competition in the SkillsUSA program that promotes workforce development and fosters technical skills.

James In The Dentist Chair

Prior to arriving at The Wright Center for Community Health, James Coursen had been told several of his damaged teeth would need to be pulled. The Wright Center dental team, however, managed to save almost all of them, filling gaps and giving him restored confidence about his appearance.

He sometimes struggles with social anxiety, he says, which understandably compounded his concern about flashing a smile that after the accident seemed more jack-o-lantern than Jon Hamm or Bradley Cooper.

Coursen’s lengthy treatment plan at The Wright Center wasn’t without its setbacks. When one of his initial temporary fillings dropped out, he was distraught, believing the pain he had been living with would never go away and the entire process might be doomed to failure. “They reassured me,” he says. 

General dentist Dr. Caitlin McCarthy of The Wright Center for Community Health’s Scranton Practice shows patient James Coursen his restored smile. The Scranton man’s upper teeth had been badly damaged in an accident, and he was relieved to find a place where he could receive high-quality treatment at a price he could afford.

Coursen also was supported by The Wright Center’s staff in determining how to afford the procedures, which had been a concern of his from the outset. He was encouraged to apply for the organization’s sliding-fee discount program, which in combination with insurance coverage ultimately saved him significant expense. “My family and I were very thankful for that,” he says. 

These days, Coursen is quick to display his pearly whites and looking forward to re-entering the job market. He also is back to his usual healthy dental care routine of regular flossing and brushing – with one notable improvement.

“The Wright Center’s dental team recommended I get an electric toothbrush, and I did,” he says. “It allows me to clean a lot better – and I no longer need to worry about a brush triggering any pain.”

For information about dental and other health care services available at The Wright Center for Community Health’s primary care practices in Northeast Pennsylvania, call 570.230.0019 or visit TheWrightCenter.org/services.