Blue Ridge Community Health Services (BRCHS) had modest beginnings in 1963 as a migrant health clinic housed in a downtown storefront with shower curtains to separate exam rooms. But the center did have a dedicated group of volunteer medical providers that saw patients three evenings a week. Other volunteer medical personnel would also travel to farms and farm worker housing to provide care to those who were unable to access the clinic.
A key figure in the center’s beginning was Claire Heyden Burson, a career public-health nurse. An avid contributor to nonprofit health care organizations. Burson established a migrant health clinic, the first of its kind in Western North Carolina, that would later become Blue Ridge.
Anecdotes about her good works and the respect she engendered abound. Known for her caring and compassionate nature, Burson became known among thousands of workers in the East Coast Migrant Stream simply as “The Nurse. Once she was stranded on a Florida highway with a flat tire when a busload of workers from nearby Belle Glade passed by. The bus stopped and backed up and someone called out, “It’s the Nurse!” The bus emptied and in two minutes the tire had been changed.
Then there’s the story of the time she searched in the clinic’s parking lot for a false eyeball that a migrant worker had lost in a fight. The search was unsuccessful, but it fueled her reputation as a caring health-care practitioner. Then there’s the tale about the young son of a migrant worker with 19 children Burson brought into the clinic with a fractured left arm. A doctor at the center successfully treated the fracture, and the young man later put that arm to good use; he grew up to become the acclaimed pro golfer, Calvin Peete.
Ten years after opening the clinic, Burson turned her position as director over to Barbara Garrison, who was devoted to fulfilling the dream of a year-round health facility open to the entire community. That vision became reality when Burson’s migrant clinic became BRCHS. Under Garrison’s direction and with Burson’s continued involvement, BRCHS saw its greatest expansion and became nationally recognized as not only a provider of health services for migrant and seasonal farm workers, but for community health as well.
Burson’s efforts are a good example of how an individual or a group, in possession of only passion for a cause and the motivation to pursue it, can create ripples across decades that have impact hundreds of thousands of lives. By paying attention to the needs of our communities most vulnerable, Burson sowed the seeds of compassion in our community 52 years ago. Today, for tens of thousands of individuals who consider BRCHS their medical home, she is a real-life hero.