Caring for our communities: Celebrating rural health

The University of Florida College of Nursing is recognizing efforts from student nurses, faculty and alumni who serve rural communities. Through hands-on patient-care experiences such as those offered at UF Health Archer Family Health Care, the college’s nurse-led practice, these rural health care heroes are poised to transform health for local, underserved areas and meet the growing demand for experienced clinicians and researchers.

Supporting a rock for rural communities

For recent Doctor of Nursing Practice graduate Anthonia Rich (DNP 2022), rural health care is a way of life.

For a semester under the mentorship of Practice Director Denise Schentrup, APRN, DNP, Rich worked as a clinician at UF Health Archer Family Health Care, the UF College of Nursing’s nurse-led practice based in Archer, Florida. A Newberry, Florida, native, Rich grew up seeing firsthand just how important rural health practices are to making sure a local community has access to crucially important, quality care.

Anthonia Rich, DNP, RN, (left) examines a patient at UF Health Archer Family Health Care.

“Growing up in Newberry, the only health care option we had locally was a dentist’s office — my grandmother still makes the commute to Gainesville for her appointments,” Rich said. “Rural health care is essential because it provides access to treatments and care patients in these communities would have difficulty seeing otherwise. Every Gator Nurse should gain experience at Archer to learn about these rural health disparities and develop skills to navigate the challenges that exist when providing care to those individuals.”

From a young age, Rich enjoyed helping people in need get better.  She joined AFHC to provide care through performing assessments and physical exams for patients who lived in communities like her family. The environment within its four walls was like nothing she had ever experienced before.

“Each provider at Archer Family Health Care truly cares — they are so passionate about their work and go above and beyond in everything they do,” Rich said. “To them, these patients are family.”

Now a new bedside nurse at UF Health, Rich plans to eventually return to the rural health setting. She sees herself opening up a mobile health clinic for an underserved community in the future, as well as working on policy to improve health outcomes.

But according to Rich, AFHC will always have a special place in her heart.

“It was an amazing experience,” Rich said. “The positive energy I felt at Archer showed me the great things about nursing I can look forward to throughout my career.”

Hometown hero

Whether it is family ties or a personal encounter at the hospital bedside, each Bachelor of Science Nursing student has a ‘why’ behind their decision to become a nurse.

But for Kelsey Saulsberry, her Gator Nursing motivation was ‘home.’

kelsey family home
Kelsey Saulsberry with her parents.

Raised 30 miles south of the UF campus, Saulsberry grew up in the small town of Reddick (formerly known as Fairfield).

“It’s a four-stop-sign town; everyone in the area, for the most part, does something related to farming,” she said. “It’s small, but really gorgeous.”

But when it came to health care, Saulsberry could not help but think that her hometown was often forgotten about. With the closest clinic almost one hour away, appointments and filling prescriptions became a hassle, one that weighed on her mind even after moving to Tallahassee to complete her first undergraduate degree at Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University.

However, a desire to make a difference for her community inspired her decision to become a Gator Nurse. In 2021, she joined the Accelerated BSN cohort in Jacksonville, the first step in her plan to become a nurse practitioner and open a one-stop shop clinical practice.

As an ABSN student, Saulsberry said she is learning new ways to critically think about clinical care while also learning how to manage patients from a variety of backgrounds, gaining the knowledge and skills to make her dreams a reality.

Reddick, Florida

“Growing up where I did has definitely contributed to my interest in rural health,” said Saulsberry. “But I believe just being part of the College of Nursing will play a big role in getting everything I hope to accomplish done.”

To her, rural health care is something all student nurses should experience.

In the rural setting, patients are more at risk of disease and often need to drive long distances to receive care, meaning that any improvement to their health care leads to an improvement in their overall quality of life. According to Saulsberry, rural care in locations, such as Archer Family Health Care, can help nurses learn how to interact with different people and perspectives in areas that may not be similar to where they grew up, bringing a welcome challenge that will benefit future careers.

 “I can’t wait until I can play my role after graduation to provide my patients the great health care experience they deserve,” she said.

Gator Nurse researcher gives back

Growing up in South Dakota, PhD student Tarah Nelson, MSN, APRN, FNP-C, knows firsthand that in sparsely populated areas, being within a few minutes of a health care provider can make all the difference.

With just one-third the population of the Orlando metro area, much of South Dakota is known for its vast plains and frontier landscape. For Nelson, her experiences in the rural state set the stage for her nursing career.

Tarah Nelson, MSN, APRN, FNP-C

“I will always consider South Dakota home,” she said.

Over the course of a decade, Nelson has “done it all” — from providing health care services for rural tribal communities to working at a clinic for patients experiencing homelessness. With every new role, she has become more dedicated to improving health care for underrepresented communities.

 “There are many risk factors that contribute to health disparities in rural communities,” she said. “These risk factors need to be understood and addressed in order to alleviate health disparities. I want to be part of the solution.”

As a UF College of Nursing PhD student, Nelson is working to discover how to do just that. Her current research is focused on Type 2 diabetes prevention and management in the American Indian population, who make up South Dakota’s largest minority group.

Type 2 diabetes rates are high in American Indian communities, leading to serious long-term health complications like coronary heart disease and kidney disease. For example, American Indians are disproportionately affected by coronary heart disease, and living in a rural community can also place individuals at risk of health disparities.

Through research she is conducting as part of the PhD program, she hopes to contribute to a greater understanding of the factors — including social determinants, or conditions influencing health outcomes — that may contribute to Type 2 diabetes disparities affecting tribal communities.

Thanks to mentorship from Assistant Professor Lisa Scarton, PhD, RN, as well as Prairieview Trust – Earl and Margo Powers Professor Diana Wilkie, PhD, RN, FAAN, and other faculty, Nelson has become motivated to eventually work in academia herself and hopes to continue her work with rural communities and underrepresented populations.

“This is just the beginning,” Nelson said. “I look forward to continuing to work toward reducing health disparities through research.”