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When Patti Crawford arrived in Hinton, West Virginia in April of 1977 to take up a position in the Cardiopulmonary Department at Summers County Hospital, the plan was to stay just one year.

But she stayed with the hospital for two decades, forging the beginning of a career that would one day see Patti become one of West Virginia’s most respected public health leaders, and a loved and trusted advocate for the health of underserved people in rural communities.

A former board member of the West Virginia Rural Health Association, Patti was recently honored by the National Rural Health Association for her contribution and service to the organization, particularly her expertise and efforts around health in rural communities, the opioid crisis, and rural workforce development.

“A culture of health can turn around a community in despair.”

It was the coal miners of West Virginia and their struggle to breathe that first inspired Patti to study respiratory therapy.

“Interestingly, there is quite an effort now in the state to endorse pulmonary rehabilitation,” she notes. “I have always been supportive of any efforts to help with pulmonary and cardiac diseases, as they are two of the biggest killers of our population.”

After nearly half century of fighting to improve health outcomes for people in West Virginia, Patti’s passion and sense of justice still burns bright.

“It’s unacceptable that one’s zip code can be more of a determinant to one’s health outcomes than one’s genetic code,” Patti says. “Rural women especially are dying at younger ages. This trend needs reversing.”

“In West Virginia, we have the distinction of being the state with the highest rate of opioid overdose deaths. There is light at the end of the tunnel but work must continue. Our rates of teen suicide are high. Our obesity and diabetes rates are high. All these conditions are diseases of despair. It is as if our collective soul has become clouded in darkness and we yearn to cleanse and set it free.”

“Healing oneself and sharing nourishing meals with family and friends is an Appalachian tradition, which can once again flourish. As a state, we just need to remember not to leave anyone behind.”

As dire as current conditions are, Patti sees good work happening in West Virginia, and it gives her hope and optimism for the future.

“There are movements within the state to engage communities in healthy behaviors,” she says. “Try This West Virginia, Active Southern West Virginia, and the West Virginia Food and Farm Coalition are just a few. And the Center for Rural Health Development has developed a “Wild, Wonderful Healthy West Virginia” movement with regional coaching hubs to align economic development and community health to address social determinants of health.”

Patti believes that improving West Virginia’s health statistics will require collective actions by community leaders to inspire real community change.

“A culture of health can turn around a community in despair,” she says. “Williamson, in Mingo County, is one such example. Dino Beckett, D.O. is a physician who understands the importance of providing jobs and economic stability to allow community members to embrace healthy behaviors with locally sourced foods and opportunities for physical activity.”

Patti, who is currently the Director of Rural Outreach at West Virginia School of Osteopathic Medicine, sees that West Virginia’s health outcomes can change when our communities embrace the importance of making their towns safe and healthy places to live for all its residents.

“In past roles I have worked with rural community groups to help them find the resources to create community health projects,” she says. “Many of them were building walking trails, restoring sidewalks to make communities safer for physical activity, and developing community gardening and nutrition outreach activities.”

“Together we can make change and create communities based on a culture of health. Healing oneself and sharing nourishing meals with family and friends is an Appalachian tradition, which can once again flourish.”

“As a state, we just need to remember not to leave anyone behind. Together communities can thrive to support an entrepreneurial spirit through policy, system, and environmental change. A healthy West Virginia is our collective vision that we need to act on today!”