Doctor who heads local public clinic is driven to provide quality health care for expectant moms

mmeehan1@herald-leader.comFebruary 11, 2013 

When HealthFirst Bluegrass began caring for new mothers who didn't have a doctor, someone had to be on call 24/7 to make sure those babies were cared for. Dr. Deborah Stanley, the medical director, took the calls.

"She is 60 years old and she volunteered to take night calls," Dr. Rice Leach, commissioner of the Lexington-Fayette County Health Department, said with an appreciative chuckle. "She is the Energizer Bunny."

Stanley's work, he said, is her calling and her passion. By being on call for new moms, she helps those who might either give birth unexpectedly while traveling through Lexington or who come from outside Fayette County without previous medical care.

In addition to answering late-night calls, Stanley helped build the program for expectant moms, said her current boss, HealthFirst executive director William North.

"She does it because she cares and believes in the system she is working in," said Leach, who was Stanley's boss before HealthFirst and the health department became separate organizations last year. HealthFirst is the name of the public health clinic that provides primary health care to residents of Central Kentucky.

Leach has personal experience with Stanley's caring side. Several years ago, when he and his wife were waiting in a Frankfort hospital after their son had a bad car wreck, Stanley showed up to see what she could do to help. It was 3 a.m.

A pediatrician, Stanley feels strongly that all patients, especially children, deserve quality medical care no matter their income, North said.

"She has high standards and leads by example," said North, who honored Stanley as HealthFirst's inaugural employee of the year in 2012.

Stanley, who grew up in the mining community of Wheelwright in Eastern Kentucky, said she wasn't always sure she'd make it as a doctor. She remembers being overwhelmed her first day in chemistry class at the University of Kentucky.

Back home, the teacher had sole custody of the school's Bunsen burner and test tubes. The first day in chemistry, she had to catalog the extensive supplies she would be responsible for during the course. The task left her scattered and discouraged.

Thinking she should just go back to Wheelwright, she made the long walk across campus back to her room. Discovering that she'd left on her safety goggles during the trek and into the dorm didn't help her mood.

She called her dad, Willard Stanley, who had always been her biggest supporter. She was ready to ask him to come get her.

"He said, 'You are as smart as anybody there,'" Stanley said. So she stuck it out. When she graduated from UK medical school in 1978, public health wasn't on her radar. She didn't like the public health rotation during her residency, she said.

But in 1985, when she had two small children, she heard that the health department was looking for a part-time doctor, and she was drawn to a job that would allow her time with her children. (She is married to Dr. Hubert Hall, Jr., a dentist she met as a student at UK, but she kept her maiden name as a way of honoring her father.)

"There were just so many needy children," she said. Many didn't have money or insurance to get anything other than the basic care the clinic provided at the time. She said she would call her former medical school classmates and colleagues to wangle dental care or the needed X-ray, whatever a child might need.

There was no formal network in place, she said, "just doctor to doctor, person to person."

Early in her career at the health department she saw a lot of sexually abused kids who needed specialized help. To care for them, she learned to conduct the specialized exams and became active with the Children's Advocacy Center, a nonprofit that helps sexually abused children and their families.

Lou Anna Red Corn, assistant Commonwealth's Attorney, served with Stanley on the center's board. She said Stanley was passionate about her work and is truly an advocate for her patients. And she was willing to do the day-to-day work of a nonprofit, such as securing items for fundraising auctions.

As the director of a public health clinic, Stanley's focus is always "that kids who come there should get the very best care as the kids who go to a fancy office," Leach said.

Stanley's own kids, the tots who helped her make the decision to join the health department, are now grown. Her daughter, Dr. Ashley Bowen, recently joined the HealthFirst staff as a physician.

The family, including son Andrew Hall, are bound by a longstanding devotion to UK, especially basketball. They travel together whenever possible to see the Cats play. Stanley said she's glad to have a common interest that gives the family an excuse to hang out.

In fact, her love for UK nearly matches her love for her job. One of the few pictures in her mostly unadorned office is a framed black-and-white photo of her and her husband as students in line to get basketball tickets.

Asked what she would do if she was on call and a mother went into labor during a UK game, Stanley waited a second before saying with a smile, "We'd have to get that baby taken care of so I could get back to the game."

Mary Meehan: (859) 231-3261. Twitter: @bgmoms. Blog: BluegrassMoms.com.

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