Catalyst Grantee Profile: St. Mary's Health Wagon

St. Mary’s Health Wagon

Interview with St Mary’s Health Wagon Executive Director, Dr. Teresa Gardner Tyson, on why she started the organization and what she is thinking about.


Organization Vision: To provide compassionate, quality health care to the medically underserved people in the Mountains of Appalachia. Our values are inclusiveness, community outreach, collaboration, spirituality and empowerment.
Organization Mission: The Health Wagon, with its mobile clinic and two stationary clinics, has remained a pioneer in the delivery of health care in the central Appalachian region for more than three decades. The Health Wagon provides Southwest Virginia and the surrounding region with compassionate, high quality health care services. We serve the most vulnerable in our population that do not have access to health care. Our patients have no insurance or may have insurance but have high co-pays and deductibles. We create a medical home for our patients and give access to health care services that they would otherwise do without. Daily at our clinic, someone’s life is forever changed or saved because of the services of that the Health Wagon offers. We create access and more importantly hope to those who come through our doors.
Population Served: The Health Wagon visits eleven sites, in a six-county service area, in Virginia’s Buchanan, Dickenson, Russell, Lee, Scott, and Wise Counties (and the City of Norton) to serve a severely medically uninsured, underinsured, underserved population.
Founding Year: 1980


Can you tell us Health Wagon’s story?  Our average patient is 38 years old. Ninety-eight percent of our patients are uninsured. Seventy percent of them have an income of less than $20,000 annually, despite working multiple jobs. This means they make too much money to qualify for Medicaid, but not enough to afford private insurance. Our patients live in desperately poverty-stricken rural Appalachia, where they can’t afford to go to the doctor but can’t afford not to. The mobility of our health clinic means we are able to fill the gap, whether they are inline at the food bank or at their job, we bring healthcare to them.
The Health Wagon serves individuals and families with free, integrated health care that is culturally sensitive. We provide primary and preventive care, dental, behavioral health, telehealth, and specialty care. In addition to our routine services, we provide the region with strategically coordinated outreach efforts. We are most proud of our Remote Area Medical – Wise Health Expedition held annually which is the largest medical outreach of its kind in the nation. Individuals in desperate need of health care line up days in advance to get needed services such as free, eye, dental and medical care. We have valuable partnerships with academic institutions that allow up and coming physicians, nurse practitioners and nurses to have educational experiences along while helping individuals in dire need of health care. The breadth of our mission, accomplishments and unprecedented community collaboration attest to our commitment to the people in the Appalachian region. Caring and committed partners include foundations, faith community, grants, corporations, civic groups, community-based organizations and businesses and individuals.
In a few sentences, please describe the problem you are working to solve and your approach to solving this problem. The Health Wagon is currently working to solve a variety of issues in Central Appalachia. The Health Wagon is working to make health care more affordable and more accessible. The Health Wagon also hosts the nation’s largest outreach in the nation because the need is so strong for medical, dental and optometry services. The Health Wagon is also a pioneer in drone medicine delivery as the organization serves a geographically widespread region.
How and why did you end up starting/working for this organization? Dr. Teresa Gardner Tyson began working at the Health Wagon as a registered nurse in 1993. She obtained her Masters of Science in Nursing as a family nurse practitioner in 1998 which allowed her to be a primary care provider to thousands of individuals throughout southwest Virginia. In 2006, Dr. Tyson was promoted to Executive Director of the Health Wagon.
What kind of trends do you see in your area of work? Unemployment, uninsured – indigent population, chronic illnesses such as: cardiovascular, depression, diabetes, pulmonary and cancer.
What are you focusing on most right now? Telehealth/telemedicine opportunities. Taking healthcare to the populations most in need. Facing and finding solutions to the opioid epidemic. Drone delivery of medications. Prevention through education and screenings, early diagnosis and chronic disease management.
What are the three most important skills you focus on developing in your staff? Why?

  • Loyalty/Dedication – experienced unchanged teams have power
  • Technology – change is the only constant in today’s world and technology produces opportunities that are cost effective to patients
  • Individuals who align with the mission and vision – individuals who have the mission at the center of what they do, regardless of clinical staff or administrative staff, produces heartfelt work.

How has technology influenced the way your organization works? We are the highest utilizer of telemedicine in Virginia in partnership with the University of Virginia. We use an electronic medical record for all documentation and scheduling. Dr. Tyson and Dr. Hill were the first nurse practitioners in the nation to do tele-cystoscopies.
Do you have any key mentors or people who deeply influenced who you are or what you do? Tell me about them. St. Mary’s Health Wagon’s founder, Sr. Bernie Kennedy, a Catholic nun from Massachusetts, began seeing patients out of her Volkswagen Beetle across the mountains of Appalachia in the 1980s. This mission continues today to bring health care access to anyone and everyone who needs help.
If we talk one year from now, reflecting on what a great year it’s been, what did you/the organization achieve? The Health Wagon saw 6,300 patients with over 13,000 encounters, the Health Wagon provided colposcopies and free cystoscopies via telehealth (1st in the nation). The Health Wagon provided $1,888,368 in value of care at the Wise Remote Area Medical event. The Health Wagon had over 2,195 volunteers. Finally, the Health Wagon launched a $1,000,000 capital campaign in November of this year.
What’s next for you in your work? What are you looking forward to? Our hope is to build a new stationary clinic in the distressed county of Dickenson in Virginia. The clinic in Clintwood, Virginia will provide opportunities for new, updated exam rooms, broadband and telehealth opportunities, and offices to accommodate a growing staff and will include a laboratory, a dental suite and radiology.
What do you wish others knew about the organization? Volunteer opportunities – many individuals can make a difference in helping us provide compassionate, quality healthcare to the medically underserved in our area.
Please click this link to access a list of Health Wagon’s recent media/press: