My time in West Virginia has been a defining moment in my life. I knew nothing of the “Hollers” where residents of Cabin Creek live. It is a very different part of the country that is most likely invisible to the rest of the United States unless you have “kin” from the area. This all changed when I saw the lyrics to the old song “Sixteen tons”.
“…I owe my soul to the company store” is posted on a museum. I’d heard this song as a child, sang the lyrics, yet never knew what it meant . The impact that the coal industry has had on West Virginia and other coal mining states is a part of US history that I didn’t appreciate until now. The company stores only accepted currency from certain coal companies. They owned the homes and land of all coal miners, and could take everything once you couldn’t work anymore. In a sense, their souls were “owned by the company store”.
Thousands used the coal industry to make a living, while sacrificing their lives and lungs to support our mostly excessive needs for energy. Black Lung Disease alone has caused severe morbidity and mortality for coal miners to the point that there are special health plans for those with the disease.
Zane and I listened to the story of a disabled coal miner. He has COPD related to Black Lung Disease. When he came into the clinic, we weren’t sure that he would even be able to walk back to the room where we could listen to his story. “Weak”, “feeble”, “worthless”….some of the words that came from his mouth as he described his current state of health.
Surprisingly, he loved his work in the coal mines. He felt free, and loved the camaraderie he had with the other men. He was joyful describing some of the tasks he’d done over the years, but had to quit because of the dust. “It was everywhere, and so thick that you couldn’t see the man right in front of you”. It was a dangerous job, but he was able to provide for his family.
Since being put on disability, he hasn’t been able to get an adequate pension from the union. He has a strong support system, but was brought to tears because he saw himself as a burden. He’s had 8 hospitalizations over the past year due to exacerbations of COPD.
At the beginning of the session, he was was struggling to breathe, but what happened at the conclusion of his story left a deep impression on my heart.
He thanked Zane and I for listening to him. “It feels like a weight has been lifted from my chest. Sometimes it’s nice to talk to someone besides close family and friends. I feel like I could run around this room!”.
Holding back the tears, I thanked him for his time, and for sharing some of the barriers he’d had in his life. He left the room with his head and chest held high.
Neither Zane or I provided our coal miner any medications, didn’t make a care plan with complex nursing diagnoses. We just listened. He felt better leaving than when he came, and this defines what nursing can be for the populations we serve.
Jeff, Rachel, Zane and I have more oral histories this afternoon and hope to glean useful information for the providers of Cabin Creek Health System. We want them to hear some of the barriers their patients have for chronic disease maintenance and staying out of the hospital.
Thanks for reading!
Ashleigh @AshEliseMPH #RuralHealth