Carolyn Emanuel-McClain: Making sure quality health care is available to everyone | Sunday Best

She doesn’t personally conduct dental cleanings, mammograms or dermatological examinations, but Carolyn Emanuel-McClain, on a weekly basis, helps clear the way for hundreds of local residents to reach such objectives, through her work as chief executive officer of Rural Health Services.

Her base of operations, with headquarters in the William Clyburn Center for Primary Care, is a federally qualified community health center with three service sites, and the North Carolina native runs the show, with enthusiastic reviews coming from around the community. The service area includes both Aiken and Edgefield counties, and the administrator can call on four decades of experience in her field, going back to her completion of graduate school, in 1979.

“She is a fighter for health-care services for folks that are severely in need,” said Aiken City Council member Lessie Price. “She’s a champion. If you want a strong health-care advocate and champion, that is Carolyn Emanuel-McClain.” 

Gail Diggs, director of Rural Health Services’ outreach and community services, shed some light on the circumstances that helped bring Emanuel-McClain from Orangeburg County, where she held a similar post. “I call her the clean-up woman … because that was her job, to go around the state to health centers that were struggling to stay open, and lend them a hand and bring them back, and that’s exactly what she did for us.”

Diggs added, “Not only did she bring us back, she took us to new heights, with the addition of a $5 million facility, the expansion of medical services and staff, which grew from about 35 … to almost 140 employees.”

The CEO’s background includes a variety of tools for the trade, including a bachelor’s degree in sociology from Pembroke State University, in North Carolina, and a master’s degree in public health administration from the University of North Carolina. Her ancestry, through the Lumbee Tribe, runs deep in her native state, and Orangeburg was her base of operations immediately prior to her service in Aiken. 

• Date and place of birth: May 7 in Maxton, N.C.

These days, the daily routine includes plenty of screen time, largely in response to communication from a variety of associations and governmental agencies.

“In other words, what I do in the morning when I come in, I sit down at my computer and I handle approximately 100 emails, in any one day, and they’re not just junk stuff. It’s something I need to read that’s going on in health care,” Emanuel-McClain said.

“That in itself can eat up pretty close to a half of my day,” she said, noting that the remainder goes to such concerns as meetings, communication with local hospital representatives, and dealing with staff and customer satisfaction questions. 

A native of Maxton, North Carolina, she has been professionally based in Aiken for 11 years, and finds great satisfaction in positive feedback – “a testimony from … any patient that says, ‘I’m so glad that you’re here,’ or ‘I don’t know what I would have done without you, without the center.'”

Recent encouragement came via a development that will allow Rural Health Services to offer monitoring for people with hypertension, to help them keep up with their blood pressure and take better care of themselves.

“It makes my heart feel good when I know there’s something that we can provide to our patient population, which is primarily the medically underserved,  that they would not be able to get on their own.”

Diggs chose the words “visionary” and “way maker” to describe Emanuel-McClain.

“She has made a tremendous impact on our services, and she’s a visionary. She’s always looking for other services that she could add, because she wants our health center to live up to its mission,” Diggs added.

She also clarified that highest priority. “Our mission is to provide accessible, quality, comprehensive primary health-care services in a dignified manner to the population in Aiken County and surrounding areas. That’s it.” 

The operation’s locations now include the Clyburn Center (1000 Clyburn Place), Margaret J. Weston Community Health Center (4645 Augusta Road, Beech Island) and Family Health Care (120 Darlington Drive). Similar independent facilities exist around the state, with about 140 sites in the mix, she noted.

S.C. Rep. Bill Clyburn, D-Aiken, is the namesake of Emanuel-McClain’s workplace, and the longtime legislator, when asked about describing Emanuel-MClain, put her in the same category as Mary McLeod Bethune, Martha Schofield and Margaret Weston, in terms of people who “lived great lives and … made tremendous contributions.”

He added, “She’s had a real journey of contributing to good health for people and helping people who need help, especially those who were sick; and … I think her contribution will be remembered for generations.” 

Emanuel-McClain and her husband, retired educational administrator Harold McClain, are also well acquainted with the eastern side of Orangeburg County, as they have a home in Santee Cooper Resort, in the small town of Santee, on the edge of Lake Marion. For the lady of the house, it provides a welcome weekend retreat from an intense focus on the latest medical developments and the regulations that surround them.

“I have family in Aiken,” she said. “My grandchildren are located there, and they’ve been there for years now … If I did not live on the lake here, I could live in Aiken, to be my full-time residence, definitely.”

The family tree is sizable. “I take my role as grandma seriously. I have, gosh, it seems like about 15 grandchildren. I have to count them so often,” she said, with a laugh.

“What makes me happy is to have all the children, all the family, to come together on holidays. Of course, with COVID, that’s kind of not possible right now; but I love family, and I love the lake, the water. I love nature … That’s where I reconnect with myself,” she said.

The commute between Santee and Aiken (about 80 miles) also provides a welcome break. “I love it, because I love looking at the trees, the farms as you start to get into Aiken, and the rolling hills. It’s just beautiful.”

Her home base in Aiken is The Haven, near Trolley Run Boulevard and Aiken Regional Medical Centers. Comparing the two communities, she said she finds peace in Aiken, in pursuing meaningful, satisfying work, and her Santee home offers “down time.”

Referring to her husband and herself, she also acknowledged “the other part of our lives” – a beefy arrangement in the town of Summerton.

“We raise beef cattle. We have a ranch with horses and cattle and goats. He’s retired, but he has a full-time job taking his animals out there, and that’s on the opposite side of the lake, in Clarendon County, so we’re farmers … and I haven’t done it recently, but I used to go out on a tractor and help feed for him and et cetera, so I know how to drive a tractor and rake the hay while he comes behind me baling the hay.”

While she can handle hay, the CEO also excels at rounding up dollars to help keep services going, in Clyburn’s assessment. The lawmaker noted, “She’s a great proposal writer, and she’s always asking questions about community health. Her whole life has been centered around people’s health care.” 

Rosa Ishmal, a former board chairman with Rural Health Services, added, “She’s a very smart and successful woman, with a lot of vision and wisdom, and she has a lot of strength. Her job is challenging, but she has accomplished so much because she is not selfish. She motivates and empowers her medical team that she works with every day as they perform their jobs, duties and responsibilities, and at the same time she holds them accountable.”

Liz Stewart, vice chairman of the board for Rural Health Services, made similar comments, describing Emanuel-McClain as a loyal friend with outstanding leadership skills and deep care for staff and patients alike.

“She’s very passionate about this. We are absolutely so fortunate to have her. She is … innovative. She is a true leader in the movement and, probably overarching all of that, is a really deep, abiding passion for making sure that good health care is available to everyone,” Stewart added.

“She is a fabulous, strong, compassionate leader, and is extremely knowledgeable about the whole health-care industry, and that’s why we have been able to do such innovative things.” 

The administrator “understands the pressures and the funding and everything in a really good business sense, but then applies it all with compassion,” she added. “Everything you could want.”