Health board member, Wal-Mart greeter knows need in a personal way

James Sleet works the door like a pro. He doles out hugs to old friends and temporary tattoos to little ones.

He backslaps, he chitchats, he smiles and bends down to say hello to the tiniest visitors. He seems to know nearly everybody who walks into the Wal-Mart in north Lexington off New Circle Road.

"I have got to work," said Sleet, 70, listing the bills he needs to pay. But, he said, he also has to be out among people. It's just a part of who he is.

Sleet's official job two days a week is Wal-Mart greeter. But the retiree fills his other days helping to set the course of a health clinic that serves thousands of people every year.

Sleet is a volunteer member of the Lexington Fayette County Health Department Governing Board for Primary Care. Half of the 12-member board, as required, are people served by the Primary Care Center, which provides health care with a sliding-scale payment system and serves a lot of people who are poor and without insurance.

The other half of the board is made up of health care professionals and people from the business community who aren't in the health care business.

Sleet's work is part of a passion for advocacy that has roots in his childhood. His family comes from a small town near Perryville. But he grew up in Lexington, where his dad was a paper hanger.

Sleet's mother, Charles Anna Lewis Sleet, put one of her seven children's health above her own when she didn't have enough money for them both to see the doctor, he said. Several days after the doctor's visit, his mother died of spinal meningitis.

"I've seen too many mothers sacrifice themselves to save their kids," he said.

So twisted with grief was one of his brothers that within a year of his mother's death, he was killed in a standoff in something that is now known as suicide by police, Sleet said. Back then, it was just known as a tragedy.

His mother always told her children that they had to give something back, and Sleet sees his work on the board as a part of that. His family losses showed him that "whether you have a million dollars or one dollar, you've got to have your health," he said.

Taking care of the poor or the homeless just makes sense for the broader community, he said. If people become disabled by disease, they are not able to contribute to the greater good. And when they are disabled, they will probably be dependent on taxpayers' dollars.

"We are going to pay for it now, or we are going to pay for it later," he said.

No one, he said, should have to go without health care.

So when he was asked to serve on the board, he said, "I felt that I had something small to offer."

William North, executive director of Primary Care, said Sleet and the other community members provide a different perspective from the health professionals who serve on the board.

Some patients are more likely to tell the community board members when the wait at the clinic is too long or if the clinic staff isn't meeting a need. One of the frequent complaints Sleet hears is that some clinic patients are uncomfortable with the increasing number of Hispanics using the clinic. But Sleet, who is African-American, said he reminds people that "it wasn't that many years ago that it was very difficult for some of us to get services."

Sleet's high profile in the community is a plus because people trust him to do the right thing, North said.

"He is genuinely liked by a great number of people," North said. "He's respectful and sensitive to the needs of individuals, and he really seems to care."

One reason for that might be that Sleet has his own health problems. He carries an inhaler for his asthma and must stay close to home on days when it flairs up.

Because of his service in the Army — Sleet says he served "five years, three months and 17 days" — he gets treatment through Veterans Affairs, but he has a teenage niece who lives with him and a grandson who are patients at the Primary Care Center.

Sleet has worked many jobs. He's been a garbage collector, a patient care advocate for an early version of managed care, a truant officer and, for many years, a security officer at Bryan Station High School.

Many of the students who know him from school now come into Wal-Mart with their own kids, or they take them to the Primary Care Center.

His concern for kids has prompted Sleet to encourage the use of school-based health clinics, which have opened in four Fayette County Public Schools: Arlington, Harrison, Tates Creek and William Wells Brown elementaries.

Being on the board has been a learning experience for Sleet.

During each monthly meeting, board members are given training in a health-related topic. But the work goes beyond board meetings; there are subcommittees and projects and meetings with the community.

For a time, Sleet said, "I was seeing more of the other board members than I was my wife." (That would be Michele Sleet, a teacher at Williams Wells Brown Elementary School.)

Sleet knows that as much as the clinic does to care for people, there is more to be done.

He'd like to see the creations of something akin to an urgent treatment center within neighborhoods. He'd also like to see the number of school-based clinics expanded.

"We've done a lot of good work," Sleet said, "but we've still got a lot of needs."

caring for others

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