A Life of Innovation and Dedication

by Natalie Bernstein

Anyone who has ever met Dr. Barbara Levin can agree on one thing: Obstacles to everyone else are opportunities to her. And once she describes her vision, she has you on her team, part of the solution, no longer one of the shoulder-shruggers. She has taken on challenges in every realm of her life and has transformed the world for those near and far.

From the beginning, Barb was a woman with a mission. Growing up in New Mexico, one of three children in a small-town doctor’s family, she struck out for Stanford University, followed by a teaching stint in Japan. Armed with a degree in public health from Rice University, Barb realized that she would better be able to accomplish sea changes in public health as a physician. And so she went into the family business; all three of the Levin children became doctors. While at the University of California at San Francisco Medical School, Barb met her husband, Dr. Josh Gettinger, and from there their dreams took flight.

During a residency in family practice medicine, the young couple decided to commit themselves to a rural mountain community in East Tennessee. Monroe County is no ordinary county: Labeled at risk because of limited available healthcare, it was a region without physicians. The nearest emergency services is 35 miles away. Initially working for the National Health Services Corps, Barb became the first female health provider in the entire county.

Barb and Josh chose to devote their talents and to raise their family in this isolated and impoverished area of East Tennessee. Their four children attended public schools in Madisonville and every Shabbat the family drove to Knoxville, an hour away, for synagogue services, where Josh read Torah, and then made the drive again the next day for Sunday school. This unlikely country town nurtured their remarkable children, graduates of the Ivy League and Stanford, Bronfman Fellowship winners, and now involved in Jewish life, contributors to their parents’ vision of tikkun olam.

Madisonville is a tiny town in a troubled part of the country; unemployment there has ranged between 7.4 and 20 percent. Fewer than 15 percent of the population has more than a high school degree and more than 25 percent is functionally illiterate. Basic medical and mental health services, especially for children, are chronically understaffed and underfunded. Monroe County, like other underserved areas, has problems with drug and substance abuse, divorce, teen pregnancy, and obesity.

As time went by, Barb assumed increasing responsibility for the Monroe County Public Health Department as a clinician, health director, and health officer.

In the early 1980s, local officials predicted a coming crisis in obstetric care. The number of physicians delivering babies had dwindled to two. In the face of this problem, Barb saw the fulfillment of one of her professional dreams – to provide accessible healthcare for women. Working with the county government, the state health commissioner, and then-Governor Lamar Alexander, she obtained state funding to establish the Monroe County Maternity Center, where she served as director until 1990. As the center grew, Barb became medical director, a role she held until 2010.

This innovative place is the first freestanding birth center for women with lowrisk pregnancies who opt to give birth outside of a hospital. For those choosing to give birth in a hospital, nurse midwives provide one-on- one care as they work with the physicians. The center’s goal is to ensure that every pregnant woman in Monroe County receives prenatal care. Last year 150 babies were delivered at the center.

In 1996 the center was renamed the Women’s Wellness and Maternity Center and opened to all women, pregnant or not, regardless of income. It provides services on a sliding fee scale for women from adolescence through menopause and beyond, including family planning, annual physicals, and gynecologic counseling.

In 2007, Barb and the WWMC applied for funding from the federal Office of Women’s Health to launch Get With It, an initiative that provides activities and classes to inspire women in rural areas to lead healthier lives. Through Get With It, women support and feel supported by each other, and as a result they take better care of themselves.

For Barb, these accomplishments are just the beginning. Last year she became CEO of Chota Community Health Services, a federally qualified center promoting health care. In testimony on children’s health before the U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Appropriations, she described the innovative and successful project adopted by Monroe County’s schools. With eight school-based clinics delivering primary care and psychiatric social workers addressing students’ emotional health, its emphasis is on prevention, education, and self-advocacy. Its success has resulted in fewer trips to emergency rooms, less absenteeism, and better school performance.

You might wonder how Barb Levin accomplishes all she does. Add to your amazement the wide circle of friends and admirers who count on her for counsel and advice. Then add the huge gatherings she hosts on holidays, birthdays, and anniversaries, when people she and Josh have known for decades enjoy a weekend together. Her home is open to all. Her Passover seders are enormous affairs, and many of the guests never had met a Jew before they met her. And don’t forget to add her work for her sisterhood and Women’s League.

Barb’s first sisterhood role at Knoxville’s Congregation Heska Emunah was Torah Fund chair. That led to her election as president. Never ever satisfied with the status quo, Barb appointed an education chair and sisterhood membership almost doubled. With clearly defined portfolios, she worked with new board members to increase the quality of sisterhood programming and education. She so enjoyed the camaraderie that when her term of office ended she continued to serve Women’s League. She is the immediate past Southern Region Torah Fund vice president, a member of the Women’s League board of directors, and the current Southern Region education vice president.

Barb and Josh are still in Madisonville, improving the life and lot of those living alongside them in East Tennessee and enhancing the range and impact of sisterhood and Women’s League as well.

Natalie Bernstein is a graduate of University of Pennsylvania and Harvard Business School. She is a former president of the sisterhood at Temple Emanuel in Newton, Massachusetts.

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