We recently embarked on a small trip to Central Appalachia on August 20th – 22nd to meet and reconnect with some local community members of St. Charles, Virginia.
Our first meeting we had was with Dr. Ron Carson, a black lung specialist at the local clinic. He spoke to us about his life and his work, which helped us gain a lot of insight to the importance of his work at the clinic. Black Lung is a disease that affects coal miners, and the people living and working around the mines, which slowly turns the person’s lungs into a cement like form making it very difficult to breathe. The purpose of Dr. Caron’s clinic is to improve the quality of life for the affected patient because this disease is permanent. This clinic utilizes a holistic approach to treatment, focusing on respiratory treatments, physical therapy and education. Another important aspect to the Black Lung Clinic is that Dr. Carson helps his patients receive medical benefits from the government for having Black Lung. There are four important steps to proving that the patient has Black Lung, and that it was caused by working directly with coal mining, which would make the patient eligible to receive benefits from the government. The national average of receiving these benefits are around 12%. Dr. Carson has helped 44% of his patients receive these benefits, and has seen 4,500 patients last year alone. To see a quick overview of Black Lung, check out WebMD http://www.webmd.com/lung/tc/black-lung-disease-topic-overview.
Ron’s wife, Jill, came into our meeting most of the way through and talked to us about the Appalachian African American Cultural Center, which the two of them are a large part of. Ron’s Great Great Grandmother built the center as a primary school for African American Children in 1940. It was close to being torn down, and the building and documents also had a fire at one point, but it still stands today to be the hub of African American Culture. Jill likes to joke that the two of them are the African American community in St. Charles, Virginia, but in reality she states that there are less than 50 African Americans in St. Charles, and more than 45 of them are older than 70. To find out more about the Carsons and the Appalachian African-American Cultural Center, look over this article about them http://www.arc.gov/magazine/articles.asp?ARTICLE_ID=159.
We next met with Dr. Easther Ajjarapu, another doctor at the clinic who specializes in black lung, but is also a general physician for the community. She works closely with Dr. Carson in the clinic, but also is doing a major presentation on Black Lung with two other doctors. These tree doctors are creating a method for identifying and proving the disease in a much more effective way, therefore helping to win patients the government benefits of having the disease. Another passion of Dr. Ajjarapu’s is traveling to other countries to assist in medical care fairs such as India and Honduras.
For our last meeting on Tuesday, we met with Dr. Van Zee who is an OxyContin addiction specialist. Dr. Van Zee opened his clinic in 1974, and now has 15 clinics all together. Overall, they serve 5,000 patients a month. In the late 1990’s the painkiller OxyContin was heavily marketed to doctors in Central Appalachia and because of this the abuse of OxyContin is abnormally high in the region. One statistic Dr. Van Zee rattled off which stuck with us was that 9% of 7th graders in the area have tried OxyContin at least once in their lives. The drug problem in Central Appalachia affects all aspects of life, whether it is education, poverty, or even crime and death rates in the area, and although it is hard to document the success rate of this clinic for OxyContin abuse, Dr. Van Zee has made a large impact on the face of OxyContin addiction in the area. If you want to learn more about the drug addiction in Central Appalachia and Dr. Van Zee’s work, there is a great book by Barry Meier titled Pain Killer: A “Wonder” Drug’s Trail of Addiction and Death.
In the evening we took a walk around downtown Norton, the area we were sleeping, to see what was around town. We found out that UVA College at Wise is right down the road, so there were a lot of young people around. We ran into a couple walking their dog Jake. Ernie Benko and his wife are in charge of running an Appalachian Regional Community television station, which covers a wide variety of events in the area. They are also the owners of Roundtable Court Reporting Service and Investigation Agency. The two of them showed us around their office, which was filled with important history of the area and the United States, while Ernie was rattling off facts about Norton that we couldn’t even keep up with. Ernie’s newest interest is utilizing Wise students to help create a computer library of every county’s history in the area, wanting it to be so expansive that it’ll be the “Digital Smithsonian” of the area. Ernie and his wife definitely showed us what southern hospitality is, and they even invited us to dinner if we’re ever in the area again, which I’m sure we’ll take them up on.
We rounded out the first night with a game of Zombies (shout out to Tori for having this in her trunk!) which Katie and apparently Ross both won, and all passed out around 12.
On our second day in St. Charles, we met with the Webb family, a wonderful group of people who we had the pleasure to meet on our first excursion just over a year ago. At the head of the family are Walter and Theresa, but we also got to meet three of their seven children, Bonnie, Rhonda, and Ariel, along with some grand children, Caitlin and Emma, in addition to some friends. The family runs a community center in the middle of St. Charles, and are pretty large activists for the revival of their once booming town.
The community center is a hub where any of the community members can come and shop for second hand clothing and shoes, along with books, glassware, appliances, and other home goods. There are also special days throughout the year where truckloads of furniture are brought into the community center, and the neighbors can take what they need and pay what they can. This is also done with vegetables and food when the Webb family can. They also are a central place for their friends to come and have a cup of coffee or warm up on the cold winter days.
Walter is an ex-coal miner who has Black Lung Disease. He’s a man in very high spirits who cracks a lot of jokes, despite his need in assistance for breathing. His wife Theresa and him were born and raised in the area, and can talk for hours about how the past town was incredibly busy and alive, and a place where people wanted to be. Now the town has lost a lot of the business in the area, leaving it mostly with the Black Lung and OxyContin clinic, school, and post office.
The daughters of Walter and Theresa, Bonnie, Rhonda and Ariel, also agreed that in the amount of time they grew up, the town has dwindled exponentially. According to the women in the family, the townspeople in the area are never around when work needs to be done, and the town of St. Charles suffers because of this careless attitude. They organized a clean up day a year or so ago, and the town looked beautiful for a month, but now no one in the community wants to put the effort in again. Bonnie and Rhonda have served on the board of the town for a while, but the board did not care about the town as much as they did, and were always voted down in a majority vote. Bonnie and Rhonda decided their opinions were better heard in the community center and have left the board. Ariel is currently in school to become a nurse specializing in rehabilitation, and is hoping to continue this path for the next 6 or 7 years. She is seeking to get a job in a hospital in a larger town, because the hospital in St. Charles is no longer functioning as an emergency room. She told us that not many peers of hers have had the same ambitions or families to push their successes, and have either started a family or are abusing drug in their mid to late teens.
The youngest girls in the Webb family are just like any other 10 and 13 year old gushing over Justin Beiber, but the interesting thing about these girls are that they are homeschooled just like Ariel was. Caitlin and Emma were excited to talk to me about their interests and fashion, and when I asked Caitlin if she liked being homeschooled she made a face that appeared to be a no, but she continued on to say that there are other 13 year olds who are already pregnant. Bonnie chimed in stating that the school systems are terrible with their education, discipline and teachers, and that she was not letting Caitlin or Emma slip through the cracks like some other children in the community.
At night, we walked through Norton again, and discovered the Dairy Queen at the end of the road (an absolute must on our past Periclean trips). We all got some and sat outside to watch the sun set over the mountains, and when we got back to our hotel, we finished the night off with a game of Settlers of Catan (thanks again Tori!).
Overall, we feel that we have gained a lot of insight into the medical affects of coal mining, as well as some cultural and every day aspects of living in St. Charles. We have some great footage from the clinic and Webb family that we are excited to edit and use during our Global Pods on November 11th and 12th. We’re also looking forward to visiting Whitesville, WV the first weekend of October to make some Applebutter with the town and reconnect with our community partner Lorelei Scarbro.