By Carol Vaughn —
Nancy Stern is retiring after working 37 years for Eastern Shore Rural Health System, Inc., including as chief executive officer the last 20 years.
“This has been a great opportunity,” Stern said.
Stern, 69, began as a part-time community health educator for the organization in 1983, after she and her late husband Jim moved to the Eastern Shore in 1980.
They restored an old house in Machipongo and set out to enjoy the rural lifestyle, including raising children, working the land, and operating a landscape business and nursery.
Stern was a health education teacher in New Jersey for four years before they moved to the Shore.
It was through their children that Stern was introduced to Eastern Shore Rural Health System, and soon got her start in a career with the organization.
“The biggest introduction to the Shore for me were the health fairs. The health fairs were big events,” Stern said.
The free fairs attracted hundreds of residents and offered everything from cholesterol and high blood pressure screenings to women’s and men’s health care.
“Back then, there really weren’t enough doctors here, so we were trying to help with that and provide access,” Stern said.
She also helped start a health fair on Tangier, with 100 volunteers.
Stern has seen significant growth in the facilities themselves over the years.
The beginning of Bayview Community Health Center was in a small doctor’s office where attorney Marsha Carter now has her office.
Stern and nurse Myra Jenkins, who still works for Rural Health, worked there together, along with a physician.
“It was just very humble beginnings,” she said.
Later, a children’s health practice was opened in Nassawadox. Then, a former furniture store was renovated and became Franktown Community Health Center.
More recently, grants and capital campaigns helped fund construction of modern facilities, including Onley Community Health Center, Atlantic Community Health Center, and Eastville Community Health Center.
George McMath took a leadership role in multiple capital campaigns for the organization.
The organization also now has a center on Chincoteague.
Stern credits Carol Rienerth, who preceded her as CEO, with being a mentor and offering her opportunities to go along to meetings where Stern got to meet people at the state and federal level.
“She was always just very inclusive,” Stern said.
Stern became director of health services, in charge of several health educators, and later became the human resources director, including assisting with physician recruitment.
Stern later served as chief operations officer before becoming CEO after Rienerth retired in 2000.
Dr. Bill Bernart, who practiced internal medicine in Nassawadox from 1958 until 1992 and cofounded what is now Riverside Eastern Shore Physicians and Surgeons, was another mentor as Stern grew into each role with Rural Health.
“He was one of those patient magnets in the community,” she said.
Her late husband, Jim, who died in 2013, was one of Stern’s greatest supporters, always encouraging her as she took on new positions with greater and greater responsibility.
Today, Eastern Shore Rural Health System includes four medical centers and five dental locations and is the primary care provider for thousands of Shore residents.
Around 37,000 patients a year are served by the health care system’s centers, resulting in more than 100,000 medical visits.
The organization includes just over 300 employees today, compared to around 45 when she started work there and 110 when she became CEO.
Among major changes Stern has seen during her tenure was in technology, including the advent of electronic health records.
Among accomplishments Stern looks back on with satisfaction are the many groundbreaking and ribbon-cutting ceremonies that marked new facilities, including the opening of Eastville Community Health Center on May 1, in the midst of a pandemic.
Working with the Chincoteague Kiwanis Club to open the Chincoteague Island Community Health Center is another highlight.
“They came to us and said, ‘Can we partner with you?’” Stern said. The Kiwanis own the building and ESRH provides health care.
Expanding dental care — badly needed on the Shore — is another highlight.
The fact that the organization kept all its employees working during the COVID-19 pandemic is another achievement that stands out in Stern’s mind.
“Nobody was furloughed, nobody. We worked hard at trying to keep everyone employed,” she said, adding, “…We didn’t want people to go without a job.”
The pandemic “has been the biggest challenge that I have ever experienced working for Eastern Shore Rural Health,” Stern said.
“We all went into it, not just Eastern Shore Rural Health, we all went into it with such uncertainty. Daily, things were changing, and trying to respond to those changes — keeping patient and employee safety number one — for us required constant attention.
“Reading, every night, what’re the updates,” the leadership team, including chief medical officer Dr. Tom Hollandsworth and chief dental officer Dr. Scott Wolpin, among others, worked hard to stay current with the latest information.
“They have been very remarkable,” she said.
As Stern has packed up boxes in her office in recent weeks, she has come across many memories, such as a photograph from the time she was asked to speak at the National Press Club in Washington, D. C.
“I had forgotten all about that. …You forget, you know. You just keep doing what you’re doing, knowing that you make a difference, and you don’t look in the rearview mirror much. You just keep looking ahead to see what’s next that has to happen,” she said.
Stern looks forward to spending more time with her eight grandchildren and to getting reacquainted with her friends after retiring.
Still, among all the accomplishments and memories, it is the relationships forged on the job, both with staff and with an extremely supportive board of directors, that remain particularly meaningful.
“I really am blessed to have been able to grow with the organization and work together with such wonderful, wonderful employees,” she said, adding, “…They are friends; they’re family.”