Public memorial planned for Dr. Sarah Kemble, community health center founder

  • The late Dr. Sarah Kemble rallied for creation of a Franklin County satellite of the Holyoke Health Center. Recorder file photo/Josh Solomon

Recorder Staff
Sunday, February 11, 2018

GREENFIELD — Dr. Sarah Kemble, who channeled her concern for providing quality health care for all into founding the Community Health Center of Franklin County, will be remembered at a public memorial service Feb. 24 at 2 p.m. an the Greenfield Community College Dining Commons.

Kemble, a longtime Leyden resident, died Dec. 13. She had been chief medical officer at the Veterans Administration Medical Center in Leeds, where she had worked since 2014. She was 59.

“She was really such a principled fighter for people living with low wages,” says Clare Higgins, executive director of Community Action, where Kemble remained as a board member for 20 years before resigning in September as her own health deteriorated.

A strong advocate for single-payer health care, Kemble “fought for what she thought was right, not for herself, but for people she thought needed assistance,” said Higgins, who as board chairwoman helped hire Kemble to head the agency in 2011. “She really saw the role of government to step in and provide that assistance.”

In 1981, Kemble began doing substance abuse counseling for Franklin Medical Center’s Beacon Programs, and helped to establish a health counseling program at the Franklin County jail.

But it wasn’t until she volunteered to do a survey of children’s health needs in Kenya — traveling with her future husband, Jerry Lund, in 1983 and 1984 — that she decided to pursue a career in medicine.

After returning home and taking the necessary classes at Greenfield Community College and University of Massachusetts, the Glastonbury, Conn., native earned a medical degree in 1994 from the State University of New York in Albany. She had received her bachelor’s degree in philosophy from Smith College in 1980.

She traveled through the American Medical Students Association to Cuba to study the people-centered health system there.

Her experience in Africa in 1983 and 1984 was “her first, I think, decisive exposure to public health,” said Lund, “the spark more than anything.”

During her outpatient medical residency, Kemble worked at Baystate Medical Center’s Brightside Community Health Center in Springfield, an experience that “gave her the underpinning of what a community health center was,” said Dr. Kathleen McGraw.

McGraw, a former Montague Center resident and now chief medical officer at Brattleboro Memorial Hospital, met Kemble through leafleting about her planning committee for a Franklin County health center at Montague May Day. With McGraw joining as a planning committee member, Kemble reached out to win the support of then-Congressman John Olver for federal funding to create a Franklin County satellite of Holyoke Health Center in 1997.

The center, which operated out of Farren Health Care Center, began sending vans to area farms to provide services to migrant farm workers. But Kemble — in what McGraw, who served as the health center’s first board president, calls an “emblematic” move — balked at providing a lower standard of care.

“She was really firm in her belief that they should come to the health center like anybody else,” McGraw recalled, and soon evening clinics began offering dinner to the hard-working farm workers.

“She could absolutely see the big picture, and she would never, ever compromise on the stuff that really mattered,” McGraw said. “Ever.”

In the years that followed, after expanding to include dental and behavioral health services, she tackled rural transportation deficiencies for low-income patients as well. The center opened satellite services at Pioneer Valley, Mohawk Trail and Frontier regional high schools.

In 2006, the center opened an Orange satellite, which it still operates.

Although she worked for Kemble as nursing director beginning in 2001, Mary Jo Korfhage recalled, “I felt we worked as colleagues, and she was my mentor, motivating and stimulating me to do the most and best work I’ve ever done. I had the greatest respect for her passion, for her lifelong dedication for health care for the underserved.”

That passion for social justice, she said, extended to a commitment to providing fair pay for every member, with no one earning under $10 an hour, as early as 2000.

“She was incredibly humble,” Korfhage said. “It was all about the work.”

Kemble served on the Leyden Board of Health and was its chairwoman from 2001 and 2002.

After leaving the health center in 2008, she had a private medical practice for a year before returning to the community health center’s north county affiliate through the fall of 2011, as the main center moved from Montague to Cherry Rum Plaza in Greenfield.

“She was used to being part of a mission-driven organization, and a private practice didn’t fit for her,” said McGraw, who remained one of her closest friends. “Health care as a right was in her bones. She definitely had a ‘true north’ about what the right thing to do was, and was willing to really do what it took to get there.”

Kemble, who went on to work as a physician at Baystate Franklin Medical Center and as chief medical officer at Vermont’s Springfield Hospital, balanced her intense work with cross-country skiing with McGraw and other friends, horseback riding and cycling. She played guitar and was a violinist with the Friends of Music at Guilford and Windham Community Orchestra.

“She was an intense but generous bike rider,” said Ruth Banta, a close friend from Smith with whom she cycled around Franklin County and southern Vermont. “She embraced lots of people and also valued her family and friends. And she had a very interesting combination of personal dedication and the ability to reach out and organize people around these issues of social justice.”

In everything, Kemble was “one of the most persistent, methodical, deliberative, calm, unflappable, determined, passionate, loyal people,” said Maria Basescu, a roommate during senior year at Smith and who lived with her and other friends in Montague Center for three years, reconnecting with her in 2006 and spending “many hundreds of hours as cyclists together, often pace lining for one another on rides.”

“She took the wind for lot of people in a lot of ways — in her medical practice, her political work, her music,” said Basescu. “She was really quite remarkable in that way, and also completely humble, never looking for credit or the spotlight, just doing the right thing. … She was absolutely unflinching in taking on the hard stuff. She made a big difference for lot of people.”