“When somebody can find that space where they’re not judged, where they are listened to and believed in, and they can share the most vulnerable parts of themselves and be met with acceptance rather than judgment and criticism – that is the environment where healing can take place.”
JENNIFER DITTES, PA-C
Co-Founder & Chief Executive Officer
HOPE Family Health
How HOPE Was Born, Part I
Jenny Dittes and the Story of HOPE Family Health
By Liz Ferrell, Director of Development & Outreach, HOPE Family Health
Recently I sat down with Jenny Dittes, co-founder and CEO of HOPE Family Health in Westmoreland, Tennessee. I asked her to share the full story of how she founded HOPE, and she did. In Part I, Jenny talks about her life experiences that gave birth to the idea of a clinic like HOPE Family Health.
ELF: Let’s start by talking about HOPE. What year did it open, and what did you envision when you decided to found a new clinic?
JD: HOPE opened in January 2005. The original vision was to provide a place where people could come for primary health care where they would feel welcomed, safe, and cared for, and where we would remove every barrier possible to care for folks.
Of course, the primary barrier is money, along with insurance status, which go hand in hand. But there are other barriers, as well.
One significant barrier is language. When you’re sick or hurting and can’t speak English well, it’s hard to get health care in this area. In addition, sometimes your legal status and whether or not you’re here as an undocumented person can also greatly impact your options for healthcare.
Sometimes a person’s sexual orientation can become a barrier. A lot of folks – particularly children who are maybe questioning their sexual identity – don’t feel accepted and feel as though they can’t be honest about who they are, particularly when they’re sick or need care.
Also, the way you look and the way you dress can be a barrier. A lot of our folks can’t afford really nice clothes, new cars, and they encounter things that make them feel shamed when they seek to access health care.
For me, it’s always just been an issue of my faith. … If there’s a person in front of me who is hurting or sick or needs health care, I’ll provide that for them. It’s not my job to ask about their status. It’s my job as a Christian to take care of them.
I really wanted to take down barriers around people feeling they have to be secretive about the things they’re struggling with, who they are and their identity, just to get health care. We want to make sure people know they’re welcome and we’re glad to provide them with care.
ELF: Now let’s talk a little about you, Jenny. Tell us a little bit about who you are, where you came from, the experiences you had that shaped you and led you to want to provide medical care to vulnerable populations.
JD: One of my earliest experiences with the health care system happened when I was 12 years old. We had just moved from California to North Carolina, and my parents had taken me and my two younger brothers to the doctor for our school physicals. I remember in the waiting area every seat was full, and it was fairly small, so when you walked up to the window everyone could hear. And I remember my parents walked up to the window to check us in, and when they asked for the payment, my parents couldn’t pay. We just turned around and walked out.
I will never forget the shamed feeling that I had when I was walking out of that office. I felt like the people were all just looking at me with disdain. Not having the money to pay for medical care in that instance caused me to feel really deep shame. We ended up getting our school physicals at the health department, but that experience really stayed with me and shaped who I became later. I knew how it felt to feel shame about something you can’t control. I didn’t want anyone else to ever feel that way walking into a doctor’s office.
That’s why I always say HOPE is a safe place. Within our walls we really want to create that safe, shame-free space where people are just people, and we’re all children of God. We’re there to take care of them and meet them exactly where they’re at.
ELF: Talk a little about your education and career before you came to Tennessee, and how you got here.
After college I went to Africa for a year with my church’s organization, called ADRA, the Adventist Development and Relief Agency, and served for a year as a volunteer in ADRA’s dental clinic in Younda, Cameroon. And it was really in Africa that I decided I wanted to go into the healthcare field. Prior to that I had wanted to become a college English teacher; my major in college was English.
But [my experience in Africa] was truly life changing. I learned that I really loved interacting with people. I loved that experience of really knowing other people and them knowing me. I discovered I had the ability to make someone else feel special, cared for, to feel seen and heard, and to know they matter. And I wanted to keep doing that. So, I made the decision to go to PA (Physician’s Assistant) school.
The year following my year in Africa I was accepted at Kettering College of Medical Arts near Dayton, Ohio, and did my three-year PA degree, and after that worked for four years in Arizona in an underserved community. I took care of a lot people of the Apache tribe located near the clinic, and did a little bit of everything – worked in a hospital, delivered babies, assisted with surgery, took care of every age group from birth to old age, attended funerals of my patients who passed, and was really immersed in that community. I just loved being a PA, loved being a part of people’s lives. I felt like I was part of the most important events in people’s lives. I just felt really lucky and honored to be present, to be invited to those important events. That was extremely rewarding.
After four years in Arizona, during the Kosovo crisis in 1999-2000, my husband and I accepted a call to go to Albania to work with refugees in the refugee camps for Albanians fleeing the ethnic cleansing in Kosovo. I worked with the medical project there while he worked with food distribution. Once the war was over and the refugees returned to their home country, our work there was done, so after being there five months we came back to the States.
We really were not quite sure where to go or what to do when we came back to the States. My husband’s family was from Portland and by then we had our first child and were expecting a second child, and we wanted to be closer to family, so we moved to Westmoreland and then in a couple of years to Portland. I took a job with a private family practice for almost four years, and during that time I noticed there were certain patients who couldn’t afford medical care.
During those years I saw that we were busy all day but we were barely scratching the surface of what people needed. And I started to actually be able to see this other kind of medical practice. And it was something that was quite visual for me.
ELF: When you say you started to be able to see “see” do you mean “to envision”?
JD: Yes, to envision a different kind of medical practice. At first it felt so unrealistic and unachievable that I didn’t give much thought to it becoming a reality. But it was still there. It was just this picture in my heart. I call it a heart picture because it was composed more of feelings than anything else. But I could envision how I would feel if it was possible to create a medical practice like that – a practice where people were welcome no matter what – whether they had money, whether they had insurance, whether they had decent clothes – all those things that keep people from getting care.
By then I had seen firsthand the difference it made when a person felt really seen and cared for. And I just wanted that kind of care for every person.
When somebody can find that space where they’re not judged, where they are listened to and believed in, and they can share the most vulnerable parts of themselves and be met with acceptance rather than judgment and criticism – that is the environment where healing can take place. And I knew that. I wanted to create a safe place where that was the norm…and also a place where we could protect patients from the medical system, which was really broken, from the medical system, from the effects of managed care and insurance and all the things that complicate and compromise our health care system in the U.S. I also wanted to be able to address emotional and spiritual concerns. I really could see a place where we could provide access to all kinds of care, surround a person with care where they didn’t have to go to five different places to get their medical care, their counseling, their medication, and even their specialty care. … I could feel how I would feel if this happened. I could feel the relief that I would feel, just the sense of rightness and belonging, for me and also for the patients.
Not all of this vision has yet been accomplished because we don’t yet provide specialty care. But this is where I belong in the world. This is my space, my life work, and we’ve done a good job of it. People are able to come here and feel safe and cared for, welcomed and loved, seen and known, and challenged to be their best selves. We can give them the tools to get healthy.
Even in the early days I could see all those things. I didn’t know how to get there, didn’t know if it was possible, but I could see them.
(To Be Continued in Part II)