[Excerpted from Crain’s Chicago Business]
Stephanie Willding ran the Chicago Marathon this October for the first time.
She says running helped her through another marathon: taking the reins of Chicago’s largest free clinic, CommunityHealth, as CEO right before the COVID-19 pandemic hit.
“I’m kind of a zero-to-100 mph type of gal,” Willding says. “I thrive on a messy start, sorting through the chaos, then finding solutions as problems present themselves. But the marathon training is letting me lean in and see the middle.”
At the onset of COVID, she sprinted, leading a team of both staff, visiting primary care and specialty doctors, and hundreds of volunteers at the Ukrainian Village clinic, which does not charge for its services. During lockdown, low-income, often uninsured patients still had to go to work, and COVID testing was crucial.
At first tests were hard to come by, “so, we just ‘did us.’ We got scrappy, found donated tests, donated PPE, and Quest lab services volunteered to handle our tests,” she says. “Testing was important because patients’ livelihoods were based on those results.”
CommunityHealth was among those providers during the pandemic that saw a needed change in health care delivery and did something about it, Willding says.
CommunityHealth’s primarily immigrant base is starting to move out of its gentrifying neighborhood northwest of downtown, but it has a way to follow them, virtually.
After setting up a vaccination clinic at Onward Neighborhood House in Belmont Cragin, Willding led the effort to create CommunityHealth’s first telehealth microsite, providing health intake workers at the Onward community center who could connect patients with doctors at Community Health. In June, it opened a second telehealth microsite at Enlace Chicago in Little Village.
The microsite move was genius, according to one of Willding’s first bosses in the community health sphere, Dr. Lee Francis, longtime leader of Erie Family Health.
“[Willding] has always been very smart, and very hungry to do more.”
-Dr. Lee Francis, President and CEO, Erie Family Health Center
Francis said that in setting up the telehealth microsites, Willding and CommunityHealth figured out early on that what lower-income patients needed during the pre-vaccine days of the pandemic wasn’t just “health literacy, but digital literacy.”