Grand Marais nurse earns $100,000 fellowship
As an advocate for rural health care, Kristin Wharton could hardly live a more rural existence herself.
"We're off the grid," said Wharton, 38, who lives with her husband and three children on a vegetable farm 17 miles northeast of Grand Marais. "We don't have broadband. We don't even have plumbing."
Wharton, a registered nurse at the Sawtooth Mountain Clinic in Grand Marais, is impassioned about health care for rural areas, something she partly traces to two years ago when the board of Cook County North Shore Hospital voted to discontinue obstetrics.
"I think for me personally it was the first time I realized how vulnerable rural communities are without strong health care systems," Wharton said Monday.
Wharton will have a chance to develop that passion over the next two years as a recipient of one of 24 Bush Foundation Fellowships bestowed among people across Minnesota, the Dakotas and the 23 Native American nations sharing their geography. The fellowship, publicly announced on Tuesday, will provide Wharton with $100,000 over two years.
The honor places Wharton in an elite group of individuals who came through a rigorous, months-long process that started with 639 applicants, said Anita Patel, who heads the Bush Foundation's fellowship and leadership programs. Past recipients have included former Minnesota Gov. Arne Carlson; Karen Diver, former chairwoman of the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa; and Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright August Wilson.
It was another previous recipient whose selection inspired her, Wharton said. That was former Grand Marais Mayor Sue Hakes, part of the 2014 fellowship class.
"Seeing someone who I knew receive the fellowship, it made it seem possible," Wharton said. "I realized it wasn't just a fellowship for people in the metro area or people that sit on governors' policy panels."
Patel said the foundation isn't necessarily looking for people who have earned a lot of awards, but for people who have established that when they have a vision, they can inspire others around that vision.
"You are an influencer; you're making change in your community," Patel summarized.
Wharton said that when the hospital's board was mulling whether to close obstetrics, she didn't want to take a position on the issue, but she did want people to be aware of it. So she started a Facebook page calling attention to the matter.
The decision to end obstetrics made Duluth the closest place for planned deliveries in a hospital setting.
"That was really impactful for me," Wharton said. "And I think that that definitely played a role in me wanting to have to take more of a leadership role in protecting and strengthening rural health care in our community, but also — we're not alone. Communities all over the country are facing these kinds of issues."
Wharton plans to use her fellowship to qualify as a family nurse practitioner through a distance learning program from Frontier Nursing University in Kentucky, she said. The program will allow her to remain on the North Shore while working toward her degree.
"As far as legitimacy to be able to advocate for rural health as well as to provide primary care to people, there's just really no path to that outside of this kind of educational program," Wharton said.
Wharton was among those who emerged from the largest field in more than 60 years of the fellowship program, Patel said.
What stood out about Wharton?
"She's thinking not just about her own growth, she's thinking about, 'how do I create or contribute to a better environment for the people I care about, a better health care system,' " Patel said.
Wharton learned on March 2 that she was one of the fellows, but now that word is out, the reality is sinking in, she said.
"I ... looked on my own name in disbelief on this list of fellows," she said. "It still feels surreal."
HOW TO APPLY
If you're interested in seeking a Bush Fellowship, the first step is to check out the website bushfoundation.org/fellowship, said Anita Patel, director of the foundation's fellowship and leadership programs. Contact information is listed there, if you have questions.
The deadline for applications for the 2018 fellowships is Aug. 15.
"We look for all types of leaders, different backgrounds, so if anyone even has an inkling of 'could that be me?,' I would love for them to reach out," Patel said.