Appalachian Scene: Eula Hall: A Driving Force for Change
by Lynda McDaniel
Eula Hall was only nine years old when she first dreamed of a clinic. It was a vivid dream, a response to more suffering than any little girl should see—babies dying from dysentery, young lives lost to tuberculosis, and her own mother almost bleeding to death as Hall stood by, helpless.
"There was no health care for anybody," Hall explains, her voice briefly trembling from a memory more than six decades old. "I'd pray to God that my family wouldn't die, that we'd have some place where people who knew something about health care could help us." She shakes her head before adding, "I never imagined my dream of a clinic would get this far."
Hall began building her clinic in 1973 with donations of $1,400 and a commitment from two local doctors. Today, the Mud Creek Clinic in Grethel, Kentucky, serves over 7,000 patients a year from a modern 5,200-square-foot facility. The clinic is the only facility in Floyd County that provides health care based on ability to pay. "There's a minimum charge of 20 percent of the bill," Hall explains, "but nobody's turned away. If they don't pay today, maybe they can pay something next time."
It takes more than medicine, though, to keep body and soul together. The Mud Creek Help Center, an adjacent 1,800-square-foot building, houses the additional services of a dental clinic, a food pantry that feeds more than 100 families each month, a donated-clothing closet, and the Mud Creek Water District, which provides potable water for a community that 30 years ago averaged 90 percent contaminated wells.
Eula Hall made it all happen. Not alone, not without much-needed financial assistance, but as a driving force behind progressive change in Floyd County.
Clues as to how she did it lie within her busy office. More than 60 pictures of family and friends speak to her love of people. Golden angels and framed blessings hint at her faith. Personal letters from President George Bush, Senator Mitch McConnell, and Representative Hal Rogers, among other notables, vouch for her political savvy. A plaque that reads "Footprints in the sands of time . . . are not made sitting down" shares her sense of humor, for surely it took a healthy dose of that to make this dream come true. And the shovel and vacuum cleaner wedged between filing cabinets? They represent a lifetime of hard work.
Meeting the People's Needs
Hall's first clinic was in the Tinker Fork community, about five miles from Mud Creek. But it soon became apparent that the facility needed more space. "That first clinic was just too small and isolated," Hall recalls. "We couldn't get sick people in or out. My house was bigger and more centrally located." So Hall and her family moved to a small, two-bedroom trailer, and the clinic moved into her house. The three bedrooms were converted to six exam rooms and the rest of the house was made into offices and waiting rooms.
In 1977, the clinic expanded again, this time by merging with Big Sandy Health Care, Inc., which contributed welcome federal dollars. "We just had to expand because the need was so great," Hall says. "We'd done everything we could by ourselves to meet the people's needs." By 1982, the staff had grown to about ten, and the clinic included an on-site pharmacy and laboratory.
Then, in June of that year, an arsonist burned the clinic to the ground. Hall remembers the fire as the hardest thing she's ever faced, except for a death in the family. "And to me it was a death in the family," she adds. "I had put every minute I could into it. Trying to make a comeback was the hardest work I've ever done."
But hardship was nothing new to Hall and her community. The day after the fire, she and a doctor turned a willow-shaded picnic table into a makeshift clinic. Later, they patched and puttied two second-hand trailers and carried on. Three months later, a letter arrived from the Appalachian Regional Commission pledging funds for a new clinic.
"That was the happiest moment in my life away from home," Hall recalls. "To know that I could take this letter and show the staff that we'd be out of that little trailer. They stayed on and endured that situation because they knew brighter days were coming."
Some did doubt their small community could raise the required matching funds—$80,000—but Hall's faith never faltered. "My family thought I was talking out of my head. I told them I'll never know if I don't try. We've gone about as low as we can go, and the only way back is up."
She called a community meeting, where 400 people pledged their support. Some gave money, others donated quilts and other items to be raffled. A two-day radiothon raised $17,000; a chicken-and-dumpling dinner $1,300. And Hall took to the road with one of her now-familiar "roadblocks." "I take a gallon bucket with a handle," she explains, "and I put a sign on each side of the railroad tracks that says 'Please help raise money for the Mud Creek Clinic.' I stand on the yellow center line with that bucket and make as much as $1,500 in a day." Together, the community raised not only the needed $80,000 but also an extra $40,000, which paid for X-ray equipment when the new clinic opened in October 1984.
Word has spread about Hall and the Mud Creek community. A 1991 New York Times story generated $25,000 in unsolicited donations. A Chicago-based company has sent a $50 check every month for years. Volunteers gather from medical schools and churches around the country, donating labor and materials for projects such as the Mud Creek Help Center.
"Eula's a living legend," says Robin Holbrook, who has served for nine years as Mud Creek's physician's assistant. "The experiences, the opportunities . . . there's never a dull moment."
Always on Call
Hall, who turns 72 in October, continues to work hard, six days a week, 52 weeks a year. From 8:00 A.M. until 8:00 P.M., she counsels patients on disability claims and Social Security benefits, arranges financial aid for food and drugs, answers questions about food stamps and housing opportunities, and attends civic board meetings and hearings as far away as Prestonsburg, the county seat.
And it's not uncommon to see Hall and Holbrook climbing mountain roads in Hall's 1995 Chevrolet Blazer or 1992 Dodge, both odometers having long ago rolled over 100,000 (and all gasoline paid for by Hall). Like Mud Creek's personal 911 service, they answer emergency calls, deliver food and medicine, and offer help and hope to the homebound. "They rely on us because that's been our pattern," Hall says. "But I really enjoy what I do. It gets me up every morning. And I've been blessed with good health."
This from someone with a heart condition, diabetes, arthritis, and allergies—health problems that would put an ordinary soul in an easy chair. Yet, even after long days of driving and ministering, she finds time to raise a garden, cook for her husband, Oliver, and maintain a close relationship with family and friends. Two of her five children have followed her public-service model: Nannetta directs the Betsy Layne Senior Citizens Center, and Dean oversees the Mud Creek Water District. Her three other children, though disabled in mining incidents, lead active lives in the community.
Hall's days are as busy with legal issues as with medical matters, earning her a reputation for being as good as any lawyer at getting benefits for those in need. With only five years of formal schooling, she wins approximately 90 percent of her cases, an average of ten a month.
"I don't have a lot of education, but I put my heart and soul into what I do," she says. "I learned by going to these hearings. I take the charts, and I gather all the evidence that is available. I work out every hearing the night before."
Hall receives no money for her legal work, though she's quick to add that she's amply rewarded. "You get a lot of happiness in this job. When you get a case approved for someone who's disabled, and it's retroactive for two years, you know they won't be doing without what they need anymore. That's joy, that's real joy," she says with a big smile.
Beth Howard, the clinic's registered nurse and patient care coordinator, says she is continually amazed by Hall's devotion. "Eula is a total patient advocate. She's almost super-human when you think of everything she's accomplished."
As for retirement, the mere mention of the word makes Hall wince. "I've tried to put that out of my mind. I know it's reality, but this place right here is the first thing on my mind when I wake up. I know my body's not what it used to be. If only it would function like my brain, I could triple what I do every day. My mind is flying."
Besides, she can't stop now. Her dream isn't finished. She's planning a 24-hour emergency room with a 36-hour holding area. "That way people wouldn't have to be hospitalized," Hall explains. "It wouldn't be as expensive for the patients, and we could take better care of them."
No ground has been broken, the first dumpling is yet to be made, and, for now, the bucket is on the shelf. But who can doubt that Eula Hall's latest dream is as certain to succeed as the one summoned by a little girl some 60 years ago.
Lynda McDaniel is a freelance writer based in Washington, D.C.