Gloria Council, has a simple description for her busy, vital and, at times, emotionally draining job. “I listen,” she said. And then she listens some more.
Council is a Novant Health community health worker who helps people with medical and other challenges move ahead in life.
“Gloria is as passionate as they come,” said Kiley Como, a nurse and Novant Health’s community health services manager. “She’s a consummate advocate for her patients.”
As one of the first community health worker (CHW) Novant Health hired in early 2019, Council “has been pivotal in the development of our program through her knowledge of the surrounding communities and her heart for our patients,” Como said. His department is funded in part through the Duke Endowment.
The Community Health Workers (CHW) program was formally launched at Novant Health in 2019 to help close health care disparities that persist along socioeconomic, and often racial, lines. CHWs work with patients, care team members, and community-based organizations to remove barriers and help navigate complex challenges that impact their health and wellness. The goals:
- Promote “health equity” by seeing that everyone has a fair and just opportunity to be healthy.
- Help fuel upward mobility, or the capacity to rise to a higher social or economic position.
Council and the other four CHWs “address the needs of the most vulnerable people in our community,” Como said. “They break down barriers. Gloria can really get people to open up to her. She genuinely cares, and people see that. But she’s not afraid to use tough love when it’s required. I call her ‘Mom,’ and I think many of her patients see her” the same way.
Council is fine with that description, but wants to make clear she’s not simply a doting “mother.” She’s the kind who expects you to do your best and isn’t shy about making that clear. “If one of my patients isn’t being compliant about making their appointments, I will call, I will text, I will not let up.”
Before Council joined Novant Health she’d been a Realtor for 30 years. She didn’t know it when she signed on for this role, but she’s again helping people find homes.
Many of Council’s patients are homeless. “Homelessness is Mecklenburg County’s biggest challenge,” she said. “And it’s the No. 1 challenge I face in this job. It’s heartbreaking.”
Hard-working … then homeless
Tangejula Smith, 50, was one of Council’s patients experiencing homelessness. Smith was referred to Council after an ER visit this spring related to her chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), which was diagnosed about nine years ago when someone discovered her weak and disoriented at a gas station.
The former long-haul truck driver and mother of two grown children became homeless in early 2019 when her landlord decided to sell the house she’d been renting for five years. Smith, on disability for COPD and on a very limited income, was given 30 days to vacate.
She was surprised by the fees charged – anywhere from $50 to $100 – just to apply to rent an apartment. The domestic violence survivor ended up finding a hotel she could afford and slept there until the money ran out. Then, she began sleeping in her car. That’s been her pattern. “I pay my bills and then get a hotel room with the money I have left,” she said. “When that runs out, I sleep in my car.”
Smith’s story illustrates how often hard-working people are often just one missed paycheck (or medical condition) away from being homeless.
“I came from driving an 18-wheeler across the country,” said Smith, who has also shared her story via video. “And that was the love of my life. When I became disabled with COPD, I had to care for myself and rely totally on disability. And after so long of … trying to survive, keep the car going … I just exhausted all funds.”
During another recent visit to the ER at Novant Health Mint Hill Medical Center, she was diagnosed with kidney disease in which two kidneys had fused into one. “They call it a horseshoe kidney. I realized I’d been having these issues all my life but just not having the best of care. You know, my parents did the best they could …”
Council helped provide Smith with tools and resources to turn her life around.
“Gloria Council has made a difference,” Smith said. “Sometimes we need somebody that just checks on [you] … ‘Girl, how you doing today? Is there anything I can do to help your day go better?’ I felt so alone. My mother and father are gone … You need somebody older with a little bit of wisdom to tell you, ‘OK, you're fixing to go through this, and so you need to prepare.’ And she's been that person for me.’”
“And props to Novant Health,” she said. “I really appreciate them. They’re my health care providers. I love my doctor to death. Some days I get overjoyed and I cry about how thankful I am. And sometimes crying heals the soul. I think to myself: I’m a big crybaby … but it helps me think of a plan. You need that in your life sometimes. You gotta drain all the dead out in order to get a new idea about things.”
Smith still misses her trucking job, but she isn’t idle. “I’ve learned to bake,” she said. “I can make a cake look like anything. I learned how to just make it look beautiful. I started getting all the different kind of pipes with the little extra change I had. Because with the right tools, you can do anything.”
Something worth celebrating
Giving people new ideas and fresh starts is Council’s specialty, but not all patients reach her in time. “I sometimes meet new patients who haven’t been to the doctor in 15, 20 years,” she said. “It is heartbreaking when I make an appointment for them and we find out they’re sick with cancer and it’s too late to treat it.”
Earlier this summer, she met a new patient who hadn’t seen a doctor in 17 years. She noticed a bump on his lip, told him he needed to have it looked at right away and got him a same-day appointment. He was diagnosed with cancer and recently began getting chemo.
Patients are referred to Council and her peers by social workers, the emergency department and hospital case managers. They work as a team for three months. The CHW does the heavy lifting at the beginning of the relationship. But gradually, patients do more and more for themselves and receive a certificate at the end of the three months.
“Gloria makes a big deal out of graduations,” Como said. “She goes to the patient’s home with the certificate, takes their picture with it. She really turns it into a celebration.”
And really, what could be a better reason to celebrate?