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Born to care: Olson looks back on 40 years of nursing

fr olsonWhen Becky Olson first began making house calls, she was barely old enough to walk. She spent her childhood following behind her physician father’s coattails when he made house calls and shadowing her mother, a nurse, through various clinics and classrooms. She saw, too, the bounty that poured into their home from patients who just couldn’t pay her father for his services — at least in monetary terms. 

“They would say, ‘Would you like a mess of beans?’ and he’d say, ‘Great!’” she recalled, adding, “I even remember a few jars of moonshine coming our way.”

Years later, as Olson embarked on what would become a 40-year career in health care, she remembered those gifts and the people behind them.  

“I just thought it was a wonderful way for things to be, but obviously it’s not that simple these days,” she said. “These folks that were able to do that in the past, we have to find a new way to provide their basic health care needs.”

It was a need Olson saw over and over again in her various capacities as a nurse, healthcare educator and researcher. Eventually, that need drew her to the Good Samaritan Clinic of Jackson County, where she worked from the time it opened in 2001 until her retirement earlier this month. The clinic filled a gap in the community that Olson was — and still is — passionate about plugging. 

“When you’ve worked for a while, it becomes very clear that what we call a health care system is not a system at all,” Olson said. “It is boxes of care that are available to certain folks who have the resources to purchase that care. There’s a large number of folks who do not have resources to purchase that care.

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“You realize you want to do something about it if you can.”


The growth of an idea

So, when Olson’s friend Judith Hallock, then a nurse practitioner at a local family practice, decided to start a free clinic in Jackson County, Olson was eager to jump on board. Whether working in pediatric ICU at Chapel Hill or teaching continuing education classes at Western Carolina University, she’d always tried to volunteer as much of her time as possible — “Our parents told us that that’s part of what it meant to be a health professional,” she said — and she was eager to start intentionally serving people in Western North Carolina who couldn’t access traditional health care. 

“People who come to the free clinic aren’t freeloaders,” she said, adding, “The majority of our patients work. Many of them work more than one job.”

From the clinic’s founding, Olson was actively involved, volunteering and serving on the board. When Hallock retired in 2006, Olson took her place. At that point, the director’s position was the only paid job. Olson was the lead nurse, the scheduler, the finder of supplies and the wearer of any other hat that needed donning. At that time, the clinic operated at night only, using a space in the Jackson County Health Department that was otherwise employed during the day. 

“What’s been simply amazing to me is from the get-go the amount of community support to support this clinic,” Olson said. 

Today, the operation looks a little bit different. Good Samaritan employs five full-time and two part-time positions and has its own clinic site in a building owned by MedWest Harris Regional Hospital. Harris Regional and Swain County hospitals donated $1 million dollars in care and services to Good Samaritan last year, and a hefty rotation of local doctors, nurses, physician assistants and other medical professionals volunteer regularly. 

“They donate their time and care and their expertise,” Olson said. “It is simply amazing.”


Filling the gap 

But while Olson is pleased with the growth in services and capacity the clinic has seen since its creation 13 years ago, she has always maintained that it’s not a good thing that free clinics need to expand. 

“It is sad that free clinics are a growth industry,” she said. “It would be so much better if there was a system of care where everyone had entry to the system.”

In the absence of such a system, though, the Good Samaritan clinic is a godsend for many, Olson said. She emphasized that the people who use its services are not lazy, and they’re not con artists trying to save a buck. By and large, they are people who need care but can’t afford insurance. Often, they are people who have been in need of care for some time, letting their condition slide longer than they should have before seeking help from Good Samaritan. 

Understanding that, Olson said, the clinic is set up to offer the intensive help its clients often need to overcome their existing problems and get back on their feet. Once a patient has qualified for the clinic’s care, he or she is eligible for regular appointments and referrals when necessary, and “from that point on it is like you going to your doctor’s office,” Olson said. 

Between appointments, patients can go see the two full-time nurses who work there, allowing them to make steady gains rather than sliding downhill while waiting to see their doctor. 

“That allows us to catch a patient up to a more stable place in their health,” Olson said. 

But medicine alone is never a cure for such chronic issues as low blood pressure and diabetes. To really address these problems and get their patients to a place where they can live healthy, self-sustaining lives, caregivers have to go beyond the examining room. That results in both lasting change and lasting relationships. 

“The relationships can become quite real and personal, because in order to help folks get past the hurdles of their physical condition, it also means you have to work with their psychological and emotional state as well,” Olson said. 

Some patients, especially those whose chronic issues prevent them from pursuing full-time work, have been in Olson’s life since her first days at the clinic 13 years ago. Since retiring, she’s received mail and phone calls — Olson often gave her personal cell number to patients in need of after-hours attention — from the people to whom she’s given her time and attention. So, though she’s excited to spend more time with her six grandchildren, leaving the clinic won’t easy. 

“I miss a lot of those folks,” she said. 

When you witness some of the most pivotal ups and downs of a patient’s life, when you’re the one listening to her story and offering the help to get her through, there’s no going back. There’s nothing like watching relief spread across a man’s face as he learns that it’s possible for the pain he’s been living with for years to go away, or like taking a call from a mother who, for the first time in a long time, has overcome her physical difficulties enough to be able to return to work. 

“Watching them say, ‘I was able to get a job today,’ that kind of thing is priceless,” Olson said. 

So, as she settles in to a life full of grandparenting and adventures with her husband, who is also retired now, she doesn’t expect this goodbye to healthcare to last forever. She’s excited to turn the clinic over to an energetic new director, Rebecca Mathis, but she’ll have trouble resisting the urge to pop in as a volunteer once that leadership transition is complete. At heart, she’ll always be a nurse. 

“It has been a wonderful career,” she said. “I don’t think I could have designed it with as much fun and challenge as I’ve had.”

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