ALBION — In July 1978, the Lovejoy Health Center started taking patients inside a ranch-style house. It employed two young doctors, just starting out in their residencies, who did everything from routine check-ups at the office to delivering babies at the hospital.

“It was actually designed so that if we failed, they could sell it as a house,” said Dr. Paul Forman, who, along with Dr. Forrest West, staffed the practice after the board of directors brought them on in 1977. “They could turn it from a doctor’s office back into a house and just put it on the market.”

But Forman and West did not fail. For years, they participated in fundraising parties, went to pot luck dinners and built relationships with townspeople in order to cement themselves and the center as part of the community.

And now, just five months shy of its 40th anniversary, the health center is celebrating the completion of its latest expansion project.

“It’s changed a lot,” said Forman, who retired in 2007, at an open house designed to show off changes to residents of Albion and other surrounding communities.

In the last several years, Lovejoy, which is one of 11 practices associated with HealthReach Community Health Centers, has acquired eight health care providers, including West, and has expanded its services to include podiatry care, adult psychiatric mental health, behavioral health consultation and care management. As a result, the center needed more space. After securing more than $450,000 in grant funding through the Health Infrastructure Investment Program of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and another $100,000 from the center’s board of directors, additional office space, a centralized nurse’s station, renovated lab area, additional storage space and a new front entrance with an accessibility lift, were all added to the building.

Practically, the expansion allows the practice to run more smoothly and provide better care to its 4,000 patients from Albion, China, Freedom, Palermo, Thorndike, Troy and Unity.

About 50 attendees from the community roamed around the newly expanded center Sunday, taking in all of the new features, having their blood pressure taken for free and enjoying light refreshments of cookies, fruit and soft drinks.

Such an expansion of a rural health care center contrasts with the problems several in Maine, such as the Jackman Community Health Center, and in the rest of the country are having because they have a smaller number of patients and charge at fixed costs, which can result in elimination of services and a reduction of staff.

Another problem, Forman said, is that centers have a hard time recruiting providers to come to rural areas and then retaining them. Practicing at a smaller center in a rural area can mean a smaller salary and a larger workload, he said.

“When a community is recruiting a provider, they’re not only recruiting that person, they’re recruiting their family,” Forman said. “You have to get their spouse to agree and their kids to agree. They’ve got to be people who enjoy living in the country; not everybody does.”

What has perhaps made Lovejoy an outlier amid other rural health centers, Forman said, is the longevity of its staff and providers. Forman spent 30 years at the practice and West is approaching the 40-year mark in July. But Forman pointed out many other staff members, past and present, at the open house Sunday have been with the practice for more than 10 or 20 years.

“It is very unusual to have the same providers there for such a long time,” he said. “Some of that is because you have to get a good match: people who like living in the country and get their satisfaction from the lifestyle; and some of it is the organization that supported us.”

All of those years of treating and getting to know patients resulted in a special bond.

“One of the nice things about practicing in the country is that you get to know the families, and there were four or five generations that I was caring for and we’ve gone through their life crises and things over the years. It’s a very special bond,” he said.

With the fragmentation between practice physicians and hospital physicians, as well as increased medical specialization, Forman said he wasn’t sure if those close relationships were possible in modern medical practices.

“I’m glad I did it when I did because in many ways it was the golden age of family practice,” he said.

Still, looking around the center — buzzing with chatty attendees checking out the new exam rooms — Forman couldn’t deny that Lovejoy may be one of the examples of successful rural health care.

“I think it’s a three-legged stool,” Forman said. “You’ve got to have providers who like the lifestyle and are dedicated to their patients; you have to have a community that really cares about health care and providing good health care and supporting their providers; and you have to have an organization, such as HealthReach, that has the knowledge and the resources to keep things going.”

Emily Higginbotham — 861-9239

[email protected]

Twitter: @EmilyHigg

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