Flint, MI—Her name is Tarnesa Martin, but you might know her as “Nurse T.”

She’s spent 20 years in the hospital as a nurse but now you can find her pretty much everywhere in the Flint community educating residents about their health. She could be at your church, in your classroom, or even at the Flint Farmer’s Market. And if you do get the chance to speak with her, you’ll probably leave feeling empowered about your health–that’s her goal.

Martin is the patient and resource advocate for Hurley Medical Center. The position is relatively new, created in April 2021 in an effort to connect more residents with healthcare resources.

“I’ve always envisioned myself being out in the community, educating and empowering,” Martin said. “The position was created … as a boots-on-the-ground approach to go in the community and help build trust, help improve health literacy, and then also to help share the resources that Hurley Medical Center had to offer to the community.” 

President & CEO of Hurley Medical Center Melany Gavulic said she and her colleagues recognized a need for a different approach to patient outreach after several patients came to the hospital with illnesses that could have been prevented. 

“One of the things that we were really looking at, and it became much more evident through the pandemic, was the severity of illness of patients coming to us with diagnoses, symptoms that, you think about, had they come earlier, they wouldn’t be sick,” Gavulic said. “What prevented them from seeking our help earlier?”   

To find out, she and her team ran some data. While the data couldn’t tell them why patients weren’t seeking care sooner, it did tell them who was delaying care. It appeared that Flint residents living in zip codes closest to the hospital made up the majority of patients with severe but preventable illnesses.

Something was wrong, Gavulic said.

“Just right around the hospital are where we found that the sickest patients were coming to us with things that potentially, had we been able to get them to get some of the health prevention things to them sooner, or they had felt like they could access health care sooner (and) felt comfortable accessing health care sooner, they may not have gotten as ill,” Gavulic said. 

Now that the hospital knew “the who” it was Martin’s turn to figure out “the why.”

Addressing fear and healthcare ‘stereotypes’ 

Though Martin has been integrating herself into the community for less than a year, she said she’s already gained much insight into why some Flint residents delay seeking care. She attends events like Porchfest , backyard barbeques, and “anywhere that there’s an opportunity and a space to be able to have a table.” She also hosts her own seminars. 

Nurse Tarnesa Martin poses with youth at Northridge Academy following an educational session on heart health (courtesy of Tarnesa Martin).

“I immediately recognized in the community was that there was a mistrust in the healthcare system. There was a health literacy issue. A lot of the community residents … were not familiar with health resources,” Martin said. 

Some told her they avoid seeking care because of past bad experiences or a family member’s bad experience. 

To help them overcome their fears, Martin said she motivates them. 

“I start out by motivating and I start out by asking questions. I might be like, ‘I came to activate. I came to activate your power. How many people in the room understand their healthcare?’” Martin said. 

She said this usually leads to personal conversations where she spends time listening to them and making them feel comfortable. 

When it comes to health education, Martin focuses on the top five medical conditions that affect Black and brown people: heart failure, stroke, diabetes, COPD, and kidney disease.

To better connect, she uses “fun” metaphors help break down medical jargon.  

“You make sure that the community doesn’t feel ashamed. And that they can relate,” Martin said. 

Often, she’ll refer to the heart as the “Queen” and the kidneys as the “King.” 

Nurse Tarnesa Martin speaks to a woman about heart health at the Hasselbring Senior Center (courtesy of Tarnesa Martin).

“The Queen runs everything. She’s the one that’s going to circulate the blood through your body but if you’re not taking care of your body, and you’re not guarding your heart, now the Queen may have a condition such as hypertension,” she said. “I call the kidneys the King because the King is the regulator. The heart is the network and the conductor, but we always got that King that tries to regulate stuff.” 

Health education is necessary to encourage Flint residents to seek early care. 

“It’s all about us empowering our community to make wise decisions, but they can’t make wise decisions if they don’t know what’s available, if they’re afraid to trust the healthcare system, if they don’t have … health literacy,” Martin said. 

Hurley will reanalyze their data this summer to see what kind of impact Martin has made and whether Flint residents are seeking care earlier on, Gavulic said. 

Anecdotally, however, Martin said she’s already seen a shift in patients’ mindsets. 

“More patients are activating their health care power, because that’s my that’s been my tag,” she said. “I can say, just from the short time that I’ve been in this position, I think I’m really making a difference.” 

Carmen Nesbitt is a journalist with diverse experience in news reporting and feature writing. She wrote for Hour Detroit and SEEN Magazine before joining the Flint Beat news team as an education and public...

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