DENTON — It’s been a year since Choptank Community Health System opened its newest health center on 5th Street in Denton. Little did its leaders know that its inaugural year would include settling in during a pandemic.
Although the center had to close its doors to walk-in patients until Sept. 15, it didn’t stop meeting the needs of those who required care — even providing dental services to people as far away as Perryville who couldn’t be seen closer to home.
But that’s the philosophy of community health centers: Meeting the multiple needs of those who need care.
“Community health centers are not just healers; we are innovators who look beyond medical charts to address the factors that may cause poor health, such as poverty, homelessness, substance use, mental illness, lack of nutrition and unemployment,” CEO Sara Rich said.
“We are a critical piece of the health care systems and collaborate with hospitals, local and state governments, social, health, and business organizations to improve health outcomes for medically vulnerable people,” she said. “We have pivoted to serving our communities through telehealth and drive-thru COVID-19 testing, all while ensuring patients can access necessities like food and housing resources.”
An important objective for planners was to make the new health center feel like home — home to families who go back generations and to those who have recently arrived to the Eastern Shore from other shores.
Every detail was carefully chosen, administrators said. From the paint colors to the wall murals of Shore landscapes to translators who speak Spanish and Creole, the center welcomes residents of all ages and financial circumstances.
“A lot of thought went into how to bring it all together to have the feel of home,” Rich said. “You know when you’re coming to the doctor or dentist, your anxiety goes up a little bit, and we just want to have everything in place that makes people comfortable.”
“Even the colors, the warm colors – they’re inviting,” said site administrator Michelle Leroux.
Almost a year ago, on a Tuesday, Oct. 29, 2019, before COVID-19, administrators and local leaders gathered to cut the ribbon that officially opened the Denton clinic at 808 North 5th Street in Denton. The center opened its doors to patients two weeks before, on Oct. 14.
Gillis Gilkerson of Salisbury built the nearly 21,000 square-foot medical facility. It has four wings devoted to family practice, pediatric care, pediatric dental and behavioral health services. Each wing is identified by a distinctive photographic mural depicting Eastern Shore landscapes. Each theme is repeated on doorplates containing three languages: English, Spanish and Braille.
There’s even a meditation garden that connects to a walking path leading to Sharp Park. The garden is dedicated to one of Choptank Health’s founders, Ruth Crouse.
The family practice wing is the largest of the four, with 10 exam rooms. The bariatric room is “another room I want to brag about,” Leroux said. Entrance to the room is at the back of the building under a porte cochere that can accommodate ambulances.
“It’s all very discreet, but the bariatric room is bigger for procedures and has an exam table that (can) weigh a patient up to 800 pounds,” Leroux said. The room is designed for a patient with “mobility or stability concerns or is an advanced age who can’t stand up on a scale.”
Health centers are community-based organizations that serve all populations including those with limited access to health care. Choptank Health is one of 17 systems in Maryland serving more than 377,000 individuals, including those without insurance or an ability to pay.
Choptank Community Health System first opened in 1980 with one location and two health care providers in Goldsboro. Choptank Health now provides medical, dental, pediatric, behavioral health, wellness and school-based programs from six primary care centers in Caroline, Dorchester and Talbot counties, serving nearly 30,000 patients in 2019.
Jonathan Forte, senior vice president and chief operating officer, likes to dispel misconceptions about community health centers. “Choptank is there as the safety net provider to take care of those who don’t have health insurance or those who might be migrants or non-citizens,” he said.
“The fact of the matter is that we take care of the CEOs of Fortune 500 companies who have the house on the long lane in Talbot County, as well as those who have nothing,” Forte said. “And we do so with high quality, world-class health care and primary care and dental care that you just can’t find anywhere else on the Eastern Shore.”
For Leroux, the year has gone by quickly.
“I can’t believe it’s been a year because it’s been quick,” she said. “It took forever for it to get here. And then it was COVID and everything. It’s just been quick, but it’s been awesome. Like, oh my gosh, it’s been a year it didn’t seem like we’d ever get to the new building. And now here we are a year later. It’s very cool.”