ST. ALBANS – Fifty years ago, a group of nurses, seeing a need for in-home care in Franklin County, raised some noise within the local health care community and founded a nonprofit home health agency.

Fifty years later, on a Thursday night in St. Albans, the Franklin County Home Health Agency (FCHHA) celebrated that half-century with some of those same nurses, a host of memories, and a rousing, dozens-strong rendition of “Happy Birthday.”

“In 1969, Neil Armstrong walked on the moon,” said Janet McCarthy, the agency’s current president and executive director. “The first Gap store opened, Elvis Presley made a comeback, the price of a gallon of milk was 36 cents… and the dream of establishing a home health agency in Franklin County came to fruition.

“Their early dream and vision inspired an organization which has become a cornerstone to the health care of Franklin County.”

Longtime veterans and founders from FCHHA’s past took to the podium to recount the early days of the home health agency, from lobbying their contemporary hospitals and Franklin County selectboards to lobbying Montpelier for the initial Medicare funding to support their agency.

“I could see patients going home without any help,” Cynthia Rugg, one of the agency’s founding nurses, recalled. “People really need help in Franklin County.”

“Discharge planning was zilch – the discharge planning was to come back and see your doctor,” co-founding nurse Norma Walgrove later recalled.

Former Franklin County Home Health Agency board member and hospice volunteer Bob Bessette leads the crowd through a rousing “Happy Birthday.” (MICHAEL FRETT, Messenger Staff)

She remembered “crashing” a hospital staff meeting one time, when she and her fellow nurse were the only women in the room at a time when only men typically became doctors. “We crashed the staff meeting,” Rugg said. “We were kind of invited, but not really.”

“They all just sort of looked at us,” Walgrove said. “There were these two women telling them what Franklin County needed.”

Still, Rugg said they managed to convince most of the doctors, eventually others joined in approval and “in about a year, year-and-a-half, we were on the road.”

“Bottom line: naysayers were in the minority and we got started,” Walgrove added.

“That’s the history,” Rugg said. “I am just so humbled and so blessed that something like this happened.”

“I am so proud to have been part of the beginning,” agreed Walgrove.

Following Rugg and Walgrove, Penny Wright, herself a nurse and the agency’s first executive director, took the podium to remind everyone about how much effort it took to build the home health agency.

“I think you all know, that to start something like this, takes a lot of people,” said Penny Wright, the agency’s first executive director. “It takes a village to raise a child… and I see how much we owe each other for what we’ve done here.”

Their impact, however, was enormous.

“Franklin County Home Health Agency, I’m thinking, will have touched every family in this county,” Wright speculated. “A lot of people in this county have really benefited… and when you’ve walked through a home as a visiting nurse and hear ‘that’s okay, Home Health is here,’ you know you’re making a real difference.”

Former executive director Dinny Hawksworth followed, commenting on the growth she saw for the agency as it developed over the last five decades. One that stood out to her in particular was the agency’s adoption of hospice care, “keeping somebody at home and not the hospital to die.”

She remarked at how much support the agency received when it expanded into hospice care, and about how much it reminded it her of a Beatles’ track, “When I’m Sxity-Four,” an optimistic, woodwind-laden take on an older life. “It’s a beautiful song,” Hawksworth said.

“I’m excited to see how the agency has grown,” she concluded. “And remember, there’s no place like home.”

Franklin County Home Health Agency founders Norma Walgrove, left, and Cynthia Rugg, right, cut a cake celebrating the 50th anniversary of the home health agency. (MICHAEL FRETT, Messenger Staff)

Outside praise for the agency came from Visiting Nursing Associations of Vermont director Jill Olson, who reminded everyone that, while “a lot of things are changing really fast” in modern health care, “caring for people at home is how we make communities healthier.”

Olson thanked FCHHA for the work they’ve done in the county, reminding everyone that “you don’t really understand what people need until you see it first hand.”

McCarthy returned to the stage quickly, giving a final round of thanks to the volunteers, donors and board members who helped build FCHHA into the modern agency it is today.

“Who ever dreamed that the little fledgling home health agency that started in 1969 would be taking care of patients needing telemonitoring, infusion therapy, complex health care and rehabilitation services?” McCarthy said. “Who ever dreamed our wonderful staff today would be touching the lives of more than 3,000 people a year, driving a half of a million miles a year, to make over 100,000 home visits?”

“Here we are, 2019,” she continued. “The price of a gallon of milk is $3.50, many people in this room have no idea who Elvis Presley is, Amazon is the go-to place for shopping, and because of Neil Armstrong, our technology has grown and advanced the way we provide health care today.

“We have so much to celebrate on this 50th anniversary of our service to the community.”

With that, hospice volunteer and former member of FCHHA’s board Bob Bessette raised a guitar, and the room broke out into a celebratory round of “Happy Birthday.”

FCHHA is a county-based visiting nursing association that provides home-based health care throughout Franklin County, ranging from care for those who need support to live independently to new mothers and support for those who are grieving.

FCHHA operates out of an office in St. Albans and a satellite office in Enosburgh.

Anyone interested in learning more about FCHHA, or interested in learning how they could support the organization, can learn more online at www.fchha.org.

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