By Melanie Raskin
Helen Milleson is living the dream, but it’s not what you would expect.
For most people, that would mean wealth and fame, privilege and power. But for Milleson, a pastor’s-kid-turned-pastor’s-wife-turned-social worker, it is fulfilling her calling to unite her strong faith with her professional expertise to lift up people who fall through the cracks.
Milleson is a FaithHealth navigator in Randolph County. She is the compassionate, savvy professional who helps hospital patients bridge a wide gap: staying healthy after leaving the hospital. And that is about so much more than just medicine, Milleson discovered. Issues that affect health and drive patients back to the hospital emergency department include lack of transportation, unemployment, challenging living situations and homelessness, the absence of dental and pregnancy care, and a missing safety net (no agency or family support). In Randolph County, there is a lot of need, the work is endless … and Milleson loves every second of it.
“I had been praying for so long for God to push me in another direction,” she says. “When I heard about FaithHealth NC, I got chills. I knew this was what I was meant to do.”
Her conviction shows. Milleson and her team of 19 volunteers have screened 1,363 patients since 2016. Their active caseload for August 2019 was more than 300 people. But this work is not for the faint-hearted. For inspiration, she looks to John Wesley, the 18th century founder of Methodism, who said: “Do all the good you can, By all the means you can, In all the ways you can, In all the places you can, At all the times you can, To all the people you can, As long as ever you can.”
“I love that quote,” she says. “That’s what I try to do—as much good as I can right now. One person at a time, we are making a difference.”
Milleson’s team has chosen to focus on supporting self-pay patients with their basic health needs, people who have lost or don’t have insurance and can’t qualify for Medicaid or the ACA. They are the working poor. FaithHealth Randolph takes a three-pronged approach to whole-person care:
- They help patients get medications for free via NC MedAssist (FaithHealth clients with diabetes receive $2,000 in free medicines each month, with a total distribution of more than $350,000 in free medications for patients since the program started in 2016).
- They direct patients to their federally qualified health center, Merce (giving program patients a primary care doctor and a new urgent care center for health emergencies).
- They arrange for financial aid at Randolph Health, the area hospital, as needed.
In a word: paperwork. They help patients get through mountains and mountains of complex paperwork. With a mission to connect patients to better health, Milleson’s team has perfected a mapping process that identifies and introduces volunteers to vital community assets. In turn, volunteers then connect patients to the help and support they need.
It is especially important work today, considering how many rural hospitals are closing across the southeastern United States. FaithHealth improves patient outcomes and hospital bottom lines.
“There are no coincidences,” Milleson states. “God puts people in your path to inspire you. For me, it’s my parents, my husband, my kids, my FaithHealth colleagues and our team. Many of our volunteers have gone through rough times and come out on the other side even stronger. Now they are able to help others going through rough times. I love seeing volunteers get bitten, watching that light bulb go off as they realize they are making a difference to patients. I get a high from that!”
Milleson’s program is so powerful, student interns who move on to other internships or get full-time jobs come back to serve as volunteers. On the other end of the spectrum, Glenn, a retired Navy officer and a master of order and organization, volunteers 32 hours a week with FaithHealth Randolph County. That kind of passion is irrepressible—and unstoppable.
“Helen is a heroine whose whole life has been lived at the intersection of faith and health,” says Gary Gunderson, vice president for Faith and Health with Wake Forest Baptist Health. “She truly lives the utter integration in institutional settings that traditionally split them far apart. But thanks to her enormously practical credibility, she has carved out support for the integrated work. She is also amazing in that she always invites others to live into their more heroic selves as part of the answer she manages to weave together around the needs of one human being at a time. And as she does this, one person at a time, she creates a pattern, a web of relationships. Everyone experiences the clean air that blows through the windows she throws open.”
The key to the program’s success is connections—to health care, to service agencies and nonprofits, to churches, to the community college, to the county and its citizens. “If I don’t know the answer, I know somebody who does,” Milleson says. “That’s what navigation is all about: connecting the dots. And heart—you have to have a heart for this.”
But sometimes, hearts can be tried. Milleson tells the story of a man who finally got Medicaid. Everyone was excited, until they realized the reason he got it was because he was very sick. Only when he was dying of cancer did he finally get the help he needed. She is quick to point out that prayer is a big part of her FaithHealth ministry.
“Sometimes, obstacles and setbacks come. You just have to dig deeper and completely trust in God. We know God’s got this,” she says. “I really feel like this is a ministry that God wants us to do. He is blessing us with the outstanding volunteers who donate time and the patients we get to meet. But, when God blesses you, He expects a lot of you. We have a lot to live up to. I’m blessed to be a blessing.