Mobile Health Clinic Brings Care to Patients in Appalachian Mountains

The story of the Health Wagon, a nurse-driven mobile health clinic that provides care to several thousand medically underserved people in the Appalachian Mountains in Virginia, is one of great risk and greater reward.

The Health Wagon, the oldest mobile health clinic in the nation, has delivered care to people in isolated towns along winding, narrow mountain roads for nearly 40 years. It started with the selfless work of Sister Bernadette “Bernie” Kenny, a nurse practitioner and medical missionary. Since 1978 had been providing free medical care to people in rural Virginia from the back of a donated Volkswagen Beetle.

Kenny had served in Ireland and East Africa before settling in Wise County, Va., in the southwest corner of the state near the borders of Kentucky, Tennessee and North Carolina. Here, she risked travel in all kinds of weather to care for the underserved.

“Every day, somebody in need comes in my path, and it is a privilege to make a difference for them,” the 81-year-old Kenny said in a February 2020 article on

Teresa Owens Tyson, DNP, FNP-BC, FAANP, who today is President and CEO of the Health Wagon, is like Kenny in her unrelenting desire to serve people. She describes her patients as the people who built our nation on their backs.

A Team Rooted in Altruism

Paula Hill-Collins, DNP, left, and Teresa Owens Tyson, DNP

Tyson grew up in the poverty of coal mining towns in Central Appalachia and knew people in the region needed help. “It has never been about work for me,” she said.

Her grandmother was not a nurse, yet she took people with tuberculosis into her home when there was no cure for TB. “I don’t know how she didn’t catch it because it was so contagious, but I guess it was just her faith in God,” she said. “She had such compassion to do for others. My mother was like her.”

Tyson started as an RN at the Health Wagon. Through financial aid and merit-based scholarships, she advanced her education, first becoming a family nurse practitioner and ultimately achieving a Doctor of Nursing Practice degree from the University of Alabama.

Tyson and her childhood friend, Paula Hill-Collins, DNP, FNP-BC, FAANP, Clinical Director of the Health Wagon, drive care delivery for nearly 5,000 patients in the region. Together, they offer an impressive menu of services, including acute disease management, behavioral health, low-cost dentures, wound care, sports physicals, transportation assistance, lab services, and more.

The Health Wagon has three mobile units and three stationary clinics. A handful of specialty physicians volunteer and a small staff of nurses and NPs work on mobile units and in the clinics. The team works with some 40 colleges and universities, providing training for student nurses.

“We’re very proud that we’re a nurse practitioner-managed clinic, and we’re a 501(c)(3) nonprofit,” said Tyson.

A Vulnerable Population

While The Health Wagon provides old-fashioned, one-on-one care, the NP-duo relies on innovation and collaboration to get people the care they need at little to no cost.

Tyson started The …read more

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