Merlene Davis: Two worthy Kentuckians to get international health workers awards

Rhonda Dixon of West Liberty visited with Ethiopian mothers a few weeks ago as she traveled with Save the Children. Dixon recently won an international award that honors health workers.
Rhonda Dixon of West Liberty visited with Ethiopian mothers a few weeks ago as she traveled with Save the Children. Dixon recently won an international award that honors health workers. Photo provided

This is a story about two international all-stars in Kentucky health care.

In December 2011, when Cristen Pascucci was 41 weeks and six days pregnant, she was told by a health provider that her pregnancy should not go past 42 weeks. And because the hospital didn't have space on its schedule to care for her the next day, her labor had to be induced that night.

That wasn't how she had planned to meet her son. Pascucci wanted a natural, unmedicated childbirth.

In that eleventh hour, she turned to nurse midwife Melissa Courtney of WomanKind Midwives of Lexington, who examined her, explained her options and allowed her to make a decision.

"It was after dusk when I got home from that appointment," Pascucci wrote on the Midwife International blog, "and I went into labor before dawn."

Pascucci gave birth to her son, Henry, 10 hours later, with Courtney assisting.

"It wasn't so much that I gave birth 'according to plan,' but that someone in what I perceived as a position of authority handed my power back to me," she wrote. "A midwife showed me that the choice was mine and always had been.

"Birth matters. Our introductions to our babies matter. Our bodies have value. No one should ever stand in the way of a woman coming into her own strength as a mother, in the act that makes her one."

Three months later, shortly after a tornado tore through Morgan County, Rhonda Dixon emerged from her untouched home in West Liberty to discover that many of her neighbors in the downtown area weren't so lucky.

"It was like a bomb went off," she said.

Dixon hoped that the Morgan County ARH Home Health Agency, where she is director, had escaped the storm's fury. It hadn't.

There were a few walls standing, she said, but all eight of their vehicles were destroyed, as were the records for all their clients.

But there was not time to feel sorry for herself.

"I realized there were people still in the community who were depending on our care," she said.

Dixon crossed the police tape, sifted through the debris and found her laptop computer. She drove to the main office in Hazard and reloaded all the patient information, and she set up an office in a local church.

Dixon's boss, Louis Roe Jr., CEO of Physician and Home Services, said he couldn't contact her for 24 hours because there was no electricity or phone service.

"I had in my head and had written down all the things she needed to do," Roe said.

When Dixon finally could call him, Roe said, she had already done everything to have the home health service up and running the next business day.

"She had crawled through rubble and secured patient information," he said. "She had gotten in touch with the staff and had looked around for a temporary location for the agency. And she did it all with no phone, no electricity or anything."

Not one patient visit was missed and not one referral delayed, he said.

Because of their dedication to their patients, Dixon and Courtney each will receive a REAL Award, given by Save the Children and Frontline Health Workers Coalition, to honor dedicated, caring and unheralded health workers in the United States and abroad.

The awards presentation will be April 11 in Washington, D.C.

Mary Beth Powers, campaign chief for Save the Children's Newborn and Child Survival program, said we often see the red carpet rolled out for celebrities at awards shows, but health workers don't have entourages.

"Often, their real red carpet is a dirt path," and their designer gowns are hospital scrubs, Powers said.

About 300 nominations were received, and workers in nine categories were recognized in this first-of-its-kind program. Kentucky had winners in the Newborn and Mother Care and the At-Home Care categories.

"We went to Lexington and brought these giant boarding passes to Washington, D.C., where they will receive their actual award and talk with policymakers," Powers said.

A couple of weeks ago, Powers took Dixon to Ethiopia to meet that country's winner.

"It was life-changing," Dixon said. Save the Children, she said, doesn't provide the care and then leave; "they teach them how to provide the care themselves. They empower women. It is amazing."

That model could be used in West Liberty, she said. "I think we need to involve the actual patients and families in their own care."

That desire to keep learning and to try to improve health care delivery is why Roe nominated Dixon.

"She represents what being a caregiver and health care giver is all about," he said. "She has had the opportunity to boast about it, but she never will. She says, 'I was doing my job and I had help.'"

Although she is honored to be nominated, Courtney doesn't think she's all that special, either. But Pascucci does.

"She took the situation that I was in — from being helpless and afraid and being told I had to have an invasive, painful and unnecessary procedure — and turned that around much more in line with my wishes and how I wanted to meet my baby," she said. "I was really scared."

Everything worked out well. Her son, Henry, 15 months old, had the "ideal birth" thanks to Courtney, Pascucci said.

Nurse midwives trust the body and "respect that pregnancy is a natural process. It is not a medical condition. What is rewarding for me is that what I do every day is so impactful that she would feel the need to nominate me," Courtney said.

And that is the purpose of the award: to let unsung health workers know just how much they influence lives.

"A week doesn't go by that I don't think about it and thank God for Melissa," Pascucci said.

Related stories from Lexington Herald Leader