Through hard work and compassion for health care rights, a nurse transforms from “on staff” to “in charge.”
Judith M. Watson, M.P.H. ’07
School of Health Sciences and Practice
Judith M. Watson, M.P.H. ’07 School of Health Sciences and Practice Alumni Statuesque and upbeat, Judith Watson directs a neighborhood health center that revolves around the radical idea that health care is a fundamental right of every human being, regardless of their ability to pay.
It’s late afternoon on a chilly October day and Judith M. Watson, M.P.H. ’07, still hasn’t had lunch. Between meeting with representatives from a local hospital, dealing with staff issues, returning emails and telephone calls, working on applications for funding, preparing a report for the center’s governing board and speaking with a reporter, her day as executive director of the Greenburgh Health Center in White Plains, N.Y., has been full, to say the least.
“It’s crazy, but I love it,” Watson says. “I’m one of those rare people who love what I do. I love waking up and going to work in the morning.”
When Watson first walked through the doors of Greenburgh in 1994, she was a newly-licensed RN who felt she already had exceeded her own expectations. She had overcome a number of challenges in her early years and says she was not a typical student. After eight years at Greenburgh she was offered the executive director position, which she accepted— along with a whole new set of challenges.
“I’m very fortunate, but my getting this position is mostly the result of just plain hard work,” she says. Watson credits her mentor and boss, Carole Morris, with helping her achieve her goals and encouraging her to believe in herself. Morris, who is the chief executive officer of the Mount Vernon Neighborhood Health Center Network, of which the Greenburgh center is a part, recognized the ambition and passion in Watson and offered support and guidance as she rose through the ranks, one position at a time.
“I have worked in each and every department in this health center,” Watson says with a laugh. “I have a strong work ethic and I became that person who would do whatever was asked of her, whatever needed to be done at that moment in time.” Watson also credits her three years of active duty in the U.S. Army and four more in the Reserves with helping her achieve a “stick with it” attitude and hone much-needed organizational skills.
Legacy of Community
As a satellite site of the Mount Vernon Neighborhood Health Center Network, the Greenburgh Health Center is one of the nation’s 5,000 Federally Qualified Health Centers, or FQHCs. The center offers comprehensive, affordable primary health care services to its patients, about half of whom are uninsured and undocumented.
“We provide primary health care services regardless of ability to pay,” Watson says. “The fee to see a provider is based on a sliding scale, but we don’t turn anyone away based on ability or inability to pay. Even if they come in with no money on them, they would still be able to see a doctor that day.” Due to widespread economic woes, Greenburgh has become particularly important for many people in the area who have lost jobs, and lost insurance, according to Watson. The center also accepts patients regardless of immigration status, a policy that many health care providers would prefer to avoid.
The Greenburgh center offers everything from pediatrics to internal medicine, along with dentistry and ophthalmology all under one roof. It also has its own lab to serve the more than 19,000 registered patients who make 92,000 annual visits to the center each year. Watson supervises a staff of 88, including providers, nurses, medical assistants and clerical staff.
Going further, wanting more
Getting the top spot was a major career achievement for Watson, who was only 34 years old at the time, but she didn’t stop there. “Once I was sitting in this seat I realized I needed to go back to school and get my masters degree,” she says. So, at the urging of several colleagues, including Vice Dean James O’Brien, Ph.D., who served with her on a community board, she enrolled in the Master of Public Health program at New York Medical College’s School of Public Health (now called the School of Health Sciences and Practice).
Watson’s graduating class was the pilot group for the capstone course, a culminating experience that offers a hands-on alternative to a thesis. Students are given an in-depth understanding of current and emerging areas of critical interest through the analysis of actual cases from the annals of public health practice. Watson says she was glad to opt for this alternative route to her degree. Today, she feels having gone through the Health Policy and Management track helped inform and broaden her views on the national health care debate.
Expansion and frustration
The need for community health centers is continually growing. Under the direction of her CEO Carole Morris, Watson has led Greenburgh in attempting an expansion project that would move them to a new, larger building and more than triple their functional space from 13,000 to 40,000 square feet. But the project has been fraught with obstacles, mainly due to members of the community who have objected to having a health center in their neighborhood, and who managed to stall the project for 5 years. By the time the approvals came, the budget had doubled from $10 million to a nearly unattainable $20 million.
“This is my biggest disappointment professionally,” Watson says. “We spent years convincing people why we had to move forward and now the budget is all but out of reach.”
However, under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) of 2009, otherwise known as the government stimulus package, funds are being made available to a limited number of community health centers for expansion of services and infrastructure. Greenburgh has applied for a share of those funds to help them build their new center. “It’s a long shot, but if we get it, it will be a major victory,” Watson says. [At press time, she still had not heard the results of her application.]
Despite the many demands and pressures of her job, Watson says she couldn’t see herself doing anything else. When she’s not working, she’s usually jogging or spending time with friends and her large, close-knit family, including 6-year old niece Dream, whom Watson calls “the light of my life.”
While it’s easy to become frustrated over the complex and problematic state of health care today, Watson says working at the Greenburgh Health Center satisfies her core belief that everyone is entitled to the same basic medical services. “Health care is the right of every human being,” she asserts. “The fact that I’m part of an organization that makes that possible, that alone fulfills me.”