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Pecos Valley Medical Center aims to be model for rural health care

December 3, 2018

PECOS — The village of Pecos is about to get its first elevator, a milestone that represents more than just reaching new building heights.

The community’s not-for-profit health center recently received a $1 million federal grant and $3.2 million loan from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to complete the second phase of its 5-year-old facility — an expansion that will more than double the center’s size to 16,000 square feet, bring all of its services under one roof and create second-floor administrative offices.

Pecos Valley Medical Center, which has been serving the community since 1975, provides medical, dental and behavioral health services, including addiction treatment, support groups and suicide prevention programs. Earlier this year, it began offering diabetes education to address a high rate of the disease among residents, and it opened a school-based clinic to ease access to medical care for kids. It also helped bring a nonprofit to town that aims to reduce food deserts by providing low-cost produce and other healthy goods.

Through the years, Pecos Valley Medical Center has continued to expand both its facilities and services, developing a holistic and patient-first approach that officials say is the framework for effective rural health care.

“We could definitely be a model in a rural setting,” said Kevin Norris, CEO of Pecos Valley Medical Center.

San Miguel County — where the village is nestled in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains near the Pecos Wilderness — in recent years has rated among the top five or 10 counties in New Mexico when it comes to death rates from diabetes, drug overdoses and alcohol abuse, according to data from the state Department of Health.

From 2010-14, San Miguel County had the second-highest rate of emergency medical responses for overdoses and other opioid-related crises, the highest rate of reported mental distress and the highest rate of youth using painkillers to get high, according to the Health Department’s 2016 New Mexico Substance Abuse State Epidemiology Profile.

Facing these health concerns and a high rate of residents living in poverty — a quarter of the population in the Pecos area, according to the Health Department — practitioners at the Pecos Valley Medical Center determined they needed to put a greater focus on holistic care, an approach that takes into account a patient’s mental, emotional and social well-being as well as physical health.

“It’s really this idea of patient-centered care,” said Julastene Dyer-Moore, the center’s chief dental officer and general dentist. “Really, it’s taking care of the entire patient and interconnecting these related systems.”

A dental exam at the center, for instance, could lead to a diabetes evaluation that then leads to a sit-down with a therapist to discuss depression — all in one visit.

Moore said everyone on staff at the center looks beyond their own area of expertise to determine how a patient’s health might be suffering and whether there are underlying issues that should be addressed.

“We all depend on each other, and we’re all available for each other’s patients,” said Chelsea Lucero, the center’s behavioral health manager. “We don’t know what [patients] are going through, and we want them to have the highest care possible.”

Lucero has been at the medical center for a little over a year and has helped grow programs to combat trauma in the community, such as support groups, suicide prevention education and Suboxone treatment for people with opioid addiction. She’s even launched a girls group aimed at boosting self-esteem.

“Part of suicide is not feeling like you’re part of a community,” Lucero said. “I wanted to bring people together.”

Lilia Varela, meanwhile, has worked to bring more people through the medical center’s doors. As the community health worker, or promotora, Varela helps patients enroll in Medicaid, apply for food stamps and establish payment plans.

“We really go that extra step to show them they belong here,” Varela said.

Sometimes that extra step means extra hours outside the office in the small community, where every face is a familiar one. Varela cited times that she’s helped enroll people in Medicaid while standing in line at the bank.

Lisa Armijo, the medical center’s school-based health coordinator and nurse, joked that she can’t go to the local dollar stores after work because she gets bombarded there with patients’ questions.

Armijo might joke about avoiding clients after hours, but she and other practitioners at the center are always advocating for resources that help increase the community’s overall well-being.

Once, she said, a student was caught stealing deodorant at a dollar store because she didn’t have any at home. The girl said her mother had left the family and her father had sold the family’s food stamps. After hearing the girl’s story, Armijo helped create a school pantry filled with toiletries available for free to students in need.

She also advocated for a clinic based at the Pecos Independent School District, so students wouldn’t have to miss much class time for medical appointments. The school clinic opened in August.

Staff at the Pecos Valley Medical Center also helped bring the nonprofit mobile food service MoGro to Pecos, which provides fresh fruits and vegetables and other goods to rural areas lacking grocery stores and makes healthy food more affordable to low-income people in cities.

“A lot of people in this area don’t leave town very much,” Armijo said. “They really rely on us for a lot of resources.”

Angela Peinado, the Pecos village treasurer, said the medical center is a true community collaborator.

“It’s been a great thing having them here,” Peinado said. “With the new expansion, it’s going to provide new opportunities the village has never had before.”

Some of the medical center’s staff members said that in the future, they’d like to see space for after-school activities and a wellness center where residents can exercise. One of their key roles, they said, is to serve as an inspiration for the community to seek healthier lifestyles.

In a village struggling with many chronic issues, said Suzanne Howard, the medical center’s diabetes educator, it’s important to show young people there’s a better way of life.

“It’s not something happening overnight,” Armijo added. “It’s a culture we’re building.”

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