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Health Right honors two volunteers of the year

By Megan Workman

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Dr. Blair Thrush and Sandy Wotring attended West Virginia University during the same four years in the 1960s.

On Saturday, the husband and wife will be honored with the same award -- as West Virginia Health Right's 2012 Volunteers of the Year. They'll be recognized at the clinic's annual fundraiser, where Health Right's 30th anniversary will be celebrated.

This is the first time the free clinic in Charleston has presented two people with the award. Health Right's executive director, Pat White, said because the two volunteer together, it makes sense to honor them both.

"When they volunteer, they both come in and see patients together," White said. "They exemplify the spirit of West Virginia Health Right. They've been volunteering for probably around 15 years. That's a long time to be helping folks out.

"It goes above and beyond what you might expect from somebody from the health-care profession to stay in that long and serve that many patients."

Thrush and Wotring each graduated from WVU with bachelor's degrees in 1967. They didn't know each other in college but Wotring joined Thrush's private practice as its nurse practitioner in 1990.

Wotring said she always knew she wanted to be a nurse. When she graduated from high school, most women became nurses, secretaries or teachers, she said.

After graduating from WVU and working at Charleston Area Medical Center, Wotring said she wanted to do even more in the health-care field.

"In West Virginia, nowhere in the state did they offer a nurse practitioner program at that time. Pittsburgh had a big master's program so I became a family nurse practitioner," Wotring said.

Wotring graduated from the University of Pittsburgh with a master's degree in 1988.

Like Wotring, Thrush always knew what his career would be. Unlike her, it wasn't completely his choice.

"My dad told me I was going to be a doctor," Thrush said. "I'm the oldest of eight children. Seven out of the eight are doctors and my dad was a surgeon in Clarksburg."

After graduating from WVU's medical school in 1970, Thrush interned at the University of Wisconsin-Madison until 1973.

Thrush said he lucked into being an allergist -- "a perfect fit for me," he said -- when the U.S. Army needed an allergist. After being drafted during the Vietnam War, he spent a year in Japan and then trained as an allergist for two years at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. He taught in the army's teaching centers in Hawaii and San Francisco.

But as a born-and-raised West Virginian, he wanted to come back home. In 1979, he started the allergy department at the WVU Medical Center.

"When I went back to West Virginia as a professor in 1979, it was the same job I had in the Army, I had just gotten out of the uniform and had gone to work for WVU," Thrush said. "If I hadn't done the allergy thing in the Army I'm not sure what I would have done, but I like being an allergist. I like the work we do."

Thrush and his partner, Dr. James Clark, spend a couple of hours with each patient -- performing allergy, skin and breathing tests -- at their office on Noyes Avenue in Kanawha City (they have another office in Teays Valley).

On a full day, Thrush said he will see four new patients and have 20 follow-up appointments.

Wotring said she does the same work that Thrush and Clark do -- like writing prescriptions and seeing patients -- as well as helping with administrative work such as paying the bills.

The couple said their staff of 15 employees, including "more RNs than most hospitals," and a full-time office manager keeps their offices running smoothly.

Even with two offices to manage, Thrush and Wotring said volunteering at Health Right seemed like the right thing to do. They volunteer the first Wednesday of each month.

"We felt we needed to give something back to the community because there are patients out there that have no readily access to allergy care," Thrush said. "We see a lot of socio-economically deprived people in our office but it does give you a window into another world of the people who have little to nothing."

Some patients take two buses just to get to the clinic, while others they see live in shelters, he said.

They even see patients at the free clinic whom they used to take care of in their own office, Thrush said.

"There's a fellow we took care of for years. He had good insurance but then he lost his insurance and had some major family problems and now we take care of him at Health Right," Thrush said. "It's not strange to see someone at Health Right who was your patient 10 years ago."

Thrush and Wotring said they are blessed that Health Right is honoring them, but they are just two of 450 volunteers at the free clinic, they said.

"We're honored to be recognized but to some degree we don't feel like we've done all that much," Wotring said.

"We're part of the whole system over there, and we don't feel like anything we've done has been too unusual, but we're trying to offer a service that would otherwise not exist," Thrush said.

West Virginia Health Right is a free clinic in Charleston that offers medical, dental, eye and pharmaceutical services to the working poor. Eighty-four percent of clinic patients have some connection to the work force, White said.

Health Right is funded through the Charleston community, grants and donations from the city and county and other groups, and the annual fundraiser. To get free services from the clinic, patients must be low-income and either uninsured or underinsured, White said.

The clinic has seen nearly 23,000 patients so far this year, she said.

WANT TO GO?

The fundraiser celebrating West Virginia Health Right's 30th anniversary will be held at Berry Hills Country Club in Charleston from 6 to 9 p.m. Saturday. Tickets are $75. Along with dinner, the fundraiser will host a live and silent auction featuring more than 100 item including West Virginia University football box seats, a river cruise down the Kanawha River, a Napa Valley trip, zip-lining and white water rafting trips and casino packages.

To buy tickets in advance, call Pat White at 304-414-5911. Tickets also will be available at the door.

Reach Megan Workman at megan.workman@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5113.


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