by Jessie Veeder
It’s 10 a.m. on a Wednesday and the once quiet small town of Watford City has been humming with the sounds of traffic since before the sun came up. Men and women in pickups and SUVs fill up with fuel, business owners open their doors to new customers looking for supplies and long-underwear to get them through the cold winter and the small coffee kiosk across the street has a line five vehicles deep waiting for a shot of caffeine to get them through the day.
Along this busy street, tucked between a quick lube and a Cenex station in the most unlikely place, nurse practitioners Vonnie Johnson and Anita Pederson go over charts and talk with patients about treatment options, vitamins and disease prevention. They meet with mothers who are new to town, student athletes, children with stuffy noses and longtime residents of the community.
And while the women are in the infant stages of fulfilling their dreams of healthcare done their way, they are also fulfilling a desperate need in this booming town.
Welcome to oil country.
Welcome to ANOVA Family Heath Center, Inc. where, education, passion and love of place have come together to create unique quality care in a part of North Dakota that has been stretched to its limits since the discovery of new technology that allows for extraction of oil 10,000 feet below the surface of the prairie, bringing with it new opportunities, new people and new challenges.
Challenges like a population increase that has pushed Watford City from 1,700 residents in 2010 to a projected 6,000 residents today. Meeting the healthcare needs of a new Watford City is a challenge that Vonnie and Anita rise to accomplish every day.
A dream realized
Vonnie Johnson grew up on a farm outside of Watford City and has held an interest in healthcare since she was a young girl. She recalls sitting around the dinner table listening to adults talk about a relative who had passed away and wondering if there could have been something done to prevent it.
That curiosity and drive to find solutions sent Vonnie to the University of North Dakota where she graduated with her bachelor of science in nursing in 1973 before moving back to Watford City to marry her husband, Dennis, raise three children and work at the local hospital. Later Vonnie earned her masters of science in Rural Health from the University of Mary. Immediately she enrolled in the Family Nurse Practitioner program, which began a career that found her working in small towns across Western North Dakota.
Since finishing her education Vonnie has become an advocate for the role that nurse practitioners play in the healthcare system and a champion for a community she has known and loved all her life.
It was Vonnie’s work at the walk-in clinic in the neighboring town of Williston in the spring of 2011 that opened her eyes to the changes in the healthcare systems of her rural community.
“I couldn’t believe how far people were driving to receive care,” she said of the patients who would travel over 75 miles one way because they couldn’t get an appointment at their local clinics. “I felt terrible.”
That feeling and realization was all it took to push Vonnie to act on her dream of opening her own clinic.
Knowing that she was at the end of her career and had the expertise needed to branch out, Vonnie called up fellow nurse, friend and Watford City native, Anita Pederson who was just finishing her masters degree online and working on an internship in Sidney, Montana.
“Vonnie and I have been in and out of each other’s lives in our nursing career. She called me up and proposed a partnership,” recalls Anita who moved back to Watford City to help care for her grandmother nine years ago before meeting and marrying her husband and raising their two children on a farm near Arnegard. “Immediately in my mind I thought no. I’m going to be a brand new practitioner!”
But the women’s camaraderie runs deep and so does their trust in one another. Anita was a student at Watford City High School when she looked to Vonnie for advice as she chose a career path and then again when she made the decision to go back to graduate school while raising a family.
“Vonnie has truly been my mentor for many, many years. I’ve been very comfortable telling her my fears, and one of my biggest fears was being a new practitioner with a new practice,” said Anita
But Vonnie assured Anita that she would give a good five years to the practice and provide Anita advice and guidance as she grew comfortable in her new role.
“I told her, you can do it and I can help,” said Vonnie.
Anita’s trust in her mentor helped ease her fears and the two women began working on a plan that found them scouring their changing community for the much coveted and hard to come by space they needed.
“I spent an entire weekend calling people I knew that might be able to help,” laughed Vonnie. “When we looked at this place, it was an old body shop and nothing about it looked right.”
But the women had a vision they were determined to realize and this September they opened their doors to a space beautifully transformed and a practice focused on professional care, education and preventative health and wellness.
Here for the long run
ANOVA Family Health Center, Inc. might be in the most unlikely place, but it’s in the most capable and caring hands.
Ask the women what they think about the changes in their community and you will find their own personal stories help them relate to the diverse patients they see every day.
“We would not have this opportunity if it weren’t for what’s happening with the industry,” said Anita. “I love this community, I want to see the best for it and we can say with pride that we are going to remain here for the long run.”
Vonnie echoes those sentiments and adds with pride her own personal story of growing up with a father who worked for a seismograph company in the 1950s, a career that found her family living in every state between North Dakota and Texas over the course of three years before moving back to the Watford City area so he could work in the oil industry.
When Vonnie treats a patient who works as a truck driver or on a drilling rig, she not only has compassion, but a true understanding of what their life and work conditions might be like.
“These people are here to make a living, they’ve left their families and their homes to come here because the economy is so bad in other places,” said Vonnie who admits she talks to them as if they were her own children, telling them to drive safely so they can get home to their families. “I think they appreciate that someone cares.”
ANOVA Family Heath Center employs two part-time nurses, a receptionist and a clinic manager. Though they’ve only been open a few months Vonnie and Anita have plans to expand and grow with the increased need.
For more information visit: anovafamilyhealth.com
Jessie Veeder is a singer, writer and photographer who lives and works on her family’s cattle ranch in Western North Dakota with her husband, Chad.