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Community Comes Out in Force to Oppose Changes at Broyhill Wellness Center

A packed house at the Watauga County Commissioners meeting voices their concerns about the ending of community memberships at the Broyhill Wellness Center.

By Zack Hill

The Tuesday, April 19, meeting of the Watauga County Commissioners was a packed house with many in attendance there to voice their opposition to the recent decision by Appalachian Regional Health System to end public memberships at the Broyhill Wellness Center. A recent letter from ARHS and the Wellness Center informed clients that all individual and family memberships will end on May 31 of this year.

Nearly 100 people, some standing just to be able to fit into the room, led off the meeting with public comment that lasted an hour and a half. Many older community members, some on the verge of tears, spoke to how central the center is to keeping them not only physically strong but mentally active and emotionally supported.

“We’re angry. The Wellness Center had renovations 2 years ago. It had negative impacts and caused people to leave. So imagine our surprise when we’re told that we’re no longer needed,” Ben Henderson said. “Surprise has given way to anger. Some would say we were deceived, and to make matters worse we haven’t been listened to.”

A central reason cited for the closing by Appalachian Regional Healthcare System CEO Chuck Mantooth in his letter to members was financial difficulty. Many in the audience felt some of the financial difficulty was caused by the recent renovations that forced members to look elsewhere for a gym.

Gary Walker was there to advocate for his father, a WWII veteran, along with himself. His father started living with him during the early part of the pandemic and has been a frequent visitor to the center.

“He walks with a walking stick and he enjoys exercise and to be active and his his friends that are there,” Walker said. “I talked to the rec center [Watauga Community Recreation Center] about walking and they said they had a lot of young people and didn’t think that would be safe for him there. I can find another gym but I’m really concerned about my dad. My wife is having heart surgery in May and will need to do cardio rehab. I don’t think the Mr. Broyhill would be very happy if you shut that down.”

Wellness Center member Ben Henderson addresses the commissioners.

A woman with a physical disability spoke with a voice quivering on the verge of crying, asking “Why would you close a facility that helps people with disabilities? I try every day to get my body strong. Shannon [a group instructor at the wellness center] looks out for me because of my physical disability. My group makes me brave and they support me if my body is not doing what I want it do. There are blind people, people with disabilities, people coming from physical rehab—I think it would be a mistake to close this place down.”

“We were blindsided by the news,” Fred Webb Jr. said. “For my first 10 years going there, I was a loner. Then on my 80th birthday, a group I was in made me feel cared about like they were my family. I’ve made new friends and benefited mentally and physically. It’s kept me in excellent health for 20 years since my heart attack.”

“More than a building with equipment, it’s people and we want to maintain our families as much possible,” Webb continued. “The only hope of getting out of this mess of sadness is moving it to the recreational center.”

“I lost 40 pounds at the wellness center and I have high blood pressure so that’s important,” Anne Gerber said. “This is going to come up and bite them [ARHS] at some point because it seems its the hospital’s bottom line that’s important, not the health of our town. I hope they get our message that we’re a community of older people who may be old in years but not in spirit.”

Gary Lyons who said he helped start Watauga Parks and Recreation decades ago was also quick to point toward the older population of Watauga County getting left out. 

“I’m so proud of what you’ve done with the wellness area but now there’s a segment of the population being ignored,” Lyons said. “Why would our healthcare system turn their back on 1200 families in Watauga County? What is their thinking?”

Lyons requested the board create a committee to investigate the issue, which the board subsequently approved unanimously.

Commissioner chairman Larry Turnbow spoke in favor of the investigation saying, “I’ve never liked ageist treatment.”

“This is the fullest I’ve ever seen this room,” commissioner Todd Castle said. “This issue hits pretty close to home. My father is a cardiac rehab patient and uses the facility every day. The theme that has struck me on every speech is community and family and that’s important. I hope we has commissioners can find a solution to meet those needs. I do not think my parents would be going today like they are without the wellness center.”

“We recognize you all are not in a good spot and you have been displaced and we need to find some solution,” commissioners Braxton Eggers said. “We want to take care of you and find the best solution.”

The commissioners voted for commissioner Ray Russell, who is on the Watauga Medical Center’s board, to carry the night’s concerns to the rest of the board.

“I know many of you have spoke but some may not know that I have credibility in that space,” Russell said. “I ran my 11th marathon a few months ago. Mr. Walker [addressing the man who advocated for his father earlier in the meeting], I think your father can be safe there. I understand pretty well and have the same philosophy of mind, body and sprit and social interaction.”

“I share your concern and do understand the social aspect of it,” Russell continued. “But i will tell you that the hospital has serious financial responsibilities to deal with. I am one vote on the board and have only been there two to four months. We do not control what the hospital does [referring the the commissioners].

“Some comments were made as if we have control of what the hospital does. We do not. What we can do is work with them and, I will give my pledge, to give you an equitable solution to the issues you’ve all raised. I know they’re legitimate. But it’s going to take some flexibility and open-mindedness.”

The commissioners voted unanimously to ask Russell to take the concerns to the hospital board and ask the board to meet with some representatives from the wellness center community.

The county owns the property the hospital is on but not the hospital and does not own the property the wellness center is on, Turnbow and Russell noted.

High Country Press will continue to follow this story and provide updates.