Healthy Me – Healthy SC kicks off statewide community health fair initiative in Blackville

October 15, 2021
a man in a Clemson orange shirt and purple mask administers a vaccine to a man sitting in the drivers seat of a pickup truck
Shaun Brown, a member of the Healthy Me – Healthy SC COVID-19 testing and vaccination team, administers a COVID-19 booster to Ronald Owens during the Blackville health fair. Photos by Kapri Kreps Rhodes

Blood pressure checks, blood sugar checks, vaccines and food distribution. These were a few of the services that residents of Blackville, South Carolina, received during Healthy Me – Healthy SC’s first health fair on Oct. 9, but HMHSC leaders hope that this is just the beginning of an ongoing partnership with local leaders that will evolve and adapt according to the needs of the local community.

“We really want to come in and work with the existing partners that are already there and figure out how to make it a win-win for the whole community,” said HMHSC executive director David Sudduth.

Blackville is a town of about 2,000 people in Barnwell County, one of three pilot counties for HMHSC. HMHSC was formed out of a partnership between the Medical University of South Carolina and Clemson University, building upon the strengths of each institution to make health care more accessible in rural areas.

This year, HMHSC began providing support for the MUSC student-run CARES Clinic outreach effort in St. Stephen, a rural community in Berkeley County. Sudduth and HMHSC director Kapri Kreps Rhodes decided they’d like to replicate that model in other rural areas of the state. They asked Anita Ramsetty, M.D., medical co-director and faculty advisor for the CARES Clinic, as well as Rhonda Matthews, Clemson Cooperative Extension program team director, for direction.

four people pose for a group photo 
From left: Kapri Kreps Rhodes, David Sudduth, Anita Ramsetty, M.D., and Rhonda Matthews

“Our goal is to operationalize these kick-off health fairs this fiscal year in Barnwell, Williamsburg and the Upstate, and then to one-by-one expand each to run on a regular basis multiple times throughout the year. Additionally, we want to engage with community partners to ensure these efforts are sustainable,” Kreps Rhodes said.

Ramsetty said that it’s all too easy for people who mean well to march into an area with an idea and implement it, regardless of whether it’s what the people there want or if it’s sustainable. Though there are worse things in the world than a one-time health clinic, she said, “I think instead of measuring ourselves against the worst thing in the world, we should really be thinking about the best thing that we could do.

“Ideally, what you want is to have an event where the community is asked about it and is interested. And over time, you build up relationships together, not only so you’re bringing a service and relationship that both sides really enjoy and value, but so that it grows naturally over time.”

That’s happened in St. Stephen, where the format of the clinic has changed as the MUSC team learned more about the community – and as COVID forced changes upon it. Similarly, HMHSC leadership realized during the planning phase of the Blackville health fair that the safest setup would be to host the fair outdoors, using a drive-through format.

an open cardboard box with various veggies inside 
A fresh produce box from FoodShare SC includes fruits and veggies as well as suggested recipes.

The HMHSC team began by traveling to Blackville, about two hours from Charleston, to meet with local groups there that were already working in the community.

Pamela McKnight, coordinator for the Barnwell County HEALing Partners coalition of 35 organizations from across all sectors, said HEALing Partners has been focusing on healthy eating and active living, chronic disease, access to care and behavioral health.

Barnwell County has a high poverty rate compared with the rest of the state, which contributes to poor health outcomes, McKnight said. It also has a large concentration of people over the age of 65. And health outcomes vary even within the small county. She said that life expectancy for people living in Blackville is seven years less than people living in the county seat of Barnwell – which is why Blackville became a focus of their efforts.

In addition to blood pressure and blood sugar checks, the health fair offered the opportunity to receive a COVID vaccine or booster, an HPV vaccine and a fresh produce box from FoodShare. Importantly, the fair also included representatives from FoodShare, who helped people to sign up for regular produce boxes, and HEALing Partners representatives, who connected people with resources so that they could take action on their blood pressure or glucose results.

Two of these resources are Clemson Health Extension’s programs for diabetes and hypertension, which are taught both in-person and virtually by Extension agents who are a part of the Rural Health and Nutrition Extension Team. These agents serve as a direct link to the communities they serve – currently 12 counties across the state. In Blackville, for example, Extension agents have already worked hand-in-hand with HEALing partners and the community at large, and these existing relationships proved critical in planning the health fair in Blackville.

“An Extension agent should always be a familiar and trusted presence in the county they serve,” Matthews said. “Rural Health Extension agents are charged with delivering research-based information to help community members improve their health status. Agents are encouraged to link with like-minded local partners and act as a conduit for information and resources available through both Clemson University and the Medical University of South Carolina. The health fairs are a great example of that linkage: multiple partners coming together in a focused effort to provide health resources for a local community.”

The HPV vaccine station was the first outing for the mobile unit that represents a partnership between MUSC Hollings Cancer Center and Healthy Me – Healthy SC. Third-year medical student Thomas Agostini, who volunteers with the CARES Clinic, worked at that station.

Agostini provided information about the vaccine, which protects against six types of cancers caused by the human papillomavirus. He found that most attendees were receptive to the vaccine, although most were also over the cutoff age of 45 years. In those cases, he encouraged attendees to talk to family members about the vaccine.

Agostini, a Columbia native who is considering primary care or endocrinology, reiterated Ramsetty’s points about the importance of local participation.

“I think when the health fairs are done responsibly – and Dr. Ramsetty always makes sure to put a lot of thought and effort into them – I think it’s a great way to connect with communities that may not have as easy of access to health care,” he said. “The commitment to working with those community partners and making sure there is a community presence is really important.”

a woman in blue scrubs pricks the finger of a woman in the drivers seat of a car 
Student nurse volunteers from Denmark Technical College perform finger stick glucose tests.

To that end, Ramsetty also recruited nursing students from Denmark Technical College to participate. Logistically, the Denmark Tech students were closer to the health fair than the MUSC students and faculty and could easily get there. But they were also culturally closer.

“You want the people who know the area best to be involved,” Ramsetty said. “They will know things culturally and societally that we wouldn't know, being from a different area even of the same state.”

Luckily, she said, Denmark Tech has a strong community service ethic, and its dean of nursing, Karen Myers, R.N., jumped at the chance.

HMHSC leaders said they knew they would learn a lot from this first fair. They had a good turnout of about 100 people, and they expect that number will grow on return visits.

“I can’t think of a better opportunity to meet people where they are, particularly in these areas where they don’t have resources, a lot of times don’t have primary care, certainly don’t have a hospital,” Sudduth said. “To take our resources out to them and meet them where they live is the essence of community health.”