BETHEL, Vt.—A few miles from the village, Bethel Health Center doctors, nurses and physician assistants have provided health care since 1990 in this White River Valley community of about 2,000 residents. Newest among them is Rachel Coombs, MD, who started seeing patients in Bethel seven months ago and whose philosophy of care is driven by a commitment to empowering patients.
In the relatively short time she’s been here, Coombs has been overheard discussing a range of topics, from her love of cows—“they are amazing, strong and gentle”—to the importance of building trust with patients, particularly female and minority patients who have been marginalized by traditional models of health care—there has “not been enough listening to women about their concerns and empowering them to develop their own instincts and wisdom about their health care.” She gives off a strong advocacy vibe, as one who will not only listen to you but also stand up for you.
The path that drew her here wove from Pennsylvania to New Hampshire, through East Asia and Central America, and ultimately to Vermont where she’s made her home the last 10 years. She’s worked milking cows and managing calf barns on farms throughout northern New England, delivering babies in Honduras and Nicaragua, addressing issues of health disparity in minority mothers and children, and advocating for LGBTQ health. She speaks Spanish and Mandarin, the latter mastered during time in China, in addition to English.
However diverse, Coombs’ story and professional choices are underscored by a single theme—the power of community—that ultimately influenced her decision to choose to practice medicine at a clinic in small-town Vermont. During a recent interview, her passion for patient care and belief in the strength of community are made clear in the earnest way she speaks. She’s not paying lip service. It’s easy to see why she chose a career in health care.
“I became a doctor because I believe in empowering patients by helping them tell their stories and helping people connect with their strength,” said Coombs. “Here we have the most powerful sense of community and commitment to health and wellness as I have ever seen. And here I truly believe that I can help improve the health and wellness of Vermonters.”
Coombs’ experiences have taught her “what communities can do to provide support, camaraderie, and education” in the pursuit of health and wellness for those who live within them. One of the organizations she admires from her time in Nicaragua is La Casa Materna, whose mission is to reduce rising maternal and infant mortality rates. While working there, in the busy city of Matagalpa, she provided care to high-risk mothers who walked several miles from their rural homes to live communally for the latter part of their pregnancy and learn about newborn care, breastfeeding, and family planning.
“I saw the strength of women who literally had to walk days to have assisted birth,” said Coombs, who originally trained as a midwife. “It taught me the importance of good public health and access to good nutrition and prenatal care.”
As part of Gifford Health Care’s Primary Care team, she enjoys caring for patients of all ages, she said, but is particularly drawn to pregnancy care and providing a continuity of care between mothers and their children. She finds reward in that she can “continue to be your doctor and your baby’s doctor.”
Outside of the clinic, the Pennsylvania native-turned-Vermonter cares for her own family—three stepsons and two daughters, ages 3 to 22—with her husband. She gardens, sings, and plays guitar, banjo and ukulele. And lastly, not surprisingly, she loves spending time with cows.
Dr. Rachel Coombs is accepting new patients at Bethel Health Center. For more information, visit giffordhealthcare.org/location/bethel-health-center or call 802-234-9913. For more information about Gifford providers, visit giffordhealthcare.org/provider.
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Gifford is a community hospital in Randolph, Vt., with family health centers in Berlin, Bethel, Chelsea, Randolph, Rochester, and White River Junction; and specialty services throughout central Vermont. A Federally Qualified Health Center and a Top 100 Critical Access Hospital in the country, Gifford is a full-service hospital with a 24-hour emergency department and inpatient unit; many surgical services; a day care; two adult day programs; and the 30-bed Menig Nursing Home, which was named by U.S. News & World Report as one of the best 39 nursing homes in the country in 2012. The Birthing Center, established in 1977, was the first in Vermont to offer an alternative to traditional hospital-based deliveries, and continues to be a leader in midwifery and family-centered care. The hospital’s mission is to improve individuals’ and community health by providing and assuring access to affordable, high-quality health care in Gifford’s service area.