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Rose Washburn and Dr. Block honored for their years of service

Rose Washburn and Dr. Block honored for their years of service

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When the Providence Community Health Center family came together on September 10 for our Employee Gala, we celebrated dozens of employees for their years of service. Our top two honorees – Rose Washburn and Dr. Stanley Block – represent the support and clinical functions that work closely together so PCHC can provide great care to people in the community.

Rose, who has served in an administrative function at several PCHC sites, will be recognized for 50 years of service at the gala. Dr. Block, Allergist and Emeritus Chief Medical Officer, will celebrate 45 years with PCHC. For Rose, her journey started with a two-week temporary assignment through the staffing agency Manpower as a receptionist at the Providence Ambulatory Healthcare Foundation (PCHC’s original name.) “I guess I did a good job,” recalls Rose, “because they hired me.” In the beginning of her PCHC career, Rose worked at a number of sites, usually storefront locations or health centers embedded in housing projects or elsewhere in the community. Her first supervisor was Leonard Walker, who served then as Director of Operations.

Over 50 years, Rose has worked at numerous sites, some of which -- like Thurbers Avenue and Angell Street -- no longer exist. Today, she works at our Allens Avenue office. Rose, a Providence resident, is not just a PCHC employee; she has been a patient for the entire 50 years she has worked here. In her spare time, she enjoys going on cruises (the photo of Rose included here is from her latest cruise!) In 50 years, Rose has developed strong relationships with many of her co-workers. “The people at PCHC have become family because we’ve worked so closely together,” she says.

When Dr. Block joined our organization as medical director in 1977, he was one of just five physicians. Back then, doctors spent a lot of time driving from one clinic to another to provide care to patients. For Dr. Block, that schedule included Monday nights at Central, Wednesday afternoons at Lippitt Hill, and Thursday afternoons at Olneyville. Dr. Block eventually transitioned his clinical practice from general pediatrics to his subspecialty of Asthma-Allergy, which he has practiced full-time for years.

“Most ‘experts’ didn’t think what we called neighborhood health centers would survive,” said Dr. Block. “But survive they did! With community support and governance by a Board of Directors that emphasized community involvement, FQHCs not only survived but prospered, flourished, and became one of the most important sources of primary care in our city, state, and nation.”

Dr. Block has been on the frontlines of delivering specialty care to our patients for decades. He is pleased to see our continued growth in that area more recently, especially under one roof at our Specialty Clinic at Randall Square. The longevity of his career has had a significant impact on PCHC and the communities we serve. “I’m now seeing the grandchildren of many of my original patients,” said Dr. Block. “Although immigrants who came to Rhode Island from all over the world often did not speak our language, their children and grandchildren became teachers, policemen, doctors, nurses, political leaders, and more. That is, after all, the ‘American Dream’ and it is as alive and well today as it was for prior generations.”

Thank you to both Rose and Dr. Block for your continued contributions to our mission!

President & CEO reflects on 25 years of growth, change at PCHC

President & CEO reflects on 25 years of growth, change at PCHC


When Merrill Thomas joined PCHC 25 years ago, the organization had fewer than 100 employees, serving 18,000 patients at six sites around Providence. Today, PCHC is home to 600 employees who care for more than 60,000 patients at nine health centers and other locations around Providence. 

 In his initial role as Chief Financial Officer/Chief Operating Officer, Merrill listened to the concerns from staff about the physical condition of our facilities and set about addressing them. There was also an effort to modernize the finance systems, which were outdated and not particularly adept at painting an accurate picture 

 After being named President & CEO in 2001, Merrill led separate surveys of our staff, Board, and community to better understand and prioritize all the issues we were facing. This resulted in the Board completing a strategic plan -- the first one in years – as well as a facility expansion plan. These were the first steps towards us finding a new Fox Point site and a replacement for our Prairie Avenue location.

 In the past 25 years, the changes at PCHC have been enormous, always with a focus on improving both the access to care and the services delivered. Merrill sees the opening of the new Prairie Avenue health center in 2012 as one of the greatest achievements during his tenure, one that took a great leap of faith from the Board of Directors. 

The following is a transcript of a discussion with Merrill about the last quarter century at PCHC.


What were some of the first steps you took when you joined PCHC as Chief Financial Officer/Chief Operating Officer?

The staff was very unhappy with the physical condition of the facilities and a variety of unaddressed infrastructure needs. As CFO/COO, I led an effort to address these issues. We were Champlin Foundation grant funding to brick three sites -- Central, Olneyville, and Capitol Hill. Every room was a different color with ancient green carpets so we painted and tiled most of the sites. We rented a site at Prairie Avenue, which leaked when it rained and had rats in the basement. 

We also switched payroll services, as the old one was not filing our taxes, installed a general ledger accounting system, and developed a new chart of accounts so that we could track revenue and grants as well as expenses by site and department. 

When I was named CEO in 2001, the first thing I did was implement separate surveys of our staff, Board, and community to better understand and prioritize all the issues we were facing. This resulted in the Board completing a strategic plan -- the first one they’d done in years – as well as a facility expansion plan. These were the first steps towards us finding a new Fox Point site and a replacement for our Prairie Avenue location. This really drove the first years of my tenure as CEO.

How has the organization changed over the past 25 years? What has remained the same?

It is hard to put into words how different things are today compared to when I started. Things have changed so much. Providers used to work at three or four sites with a morning spent at one location and the afternoon spent elsewhere. Scheduling was a nightmare. The establishment of site-based providers was a controversial one at the time, but it really started us on the path to primary care physicians caring for a panel of patients at a single site. Previously, a provider would arrive at their second site at 1 p.m. and all the patients with appointments that afternoon would also arrive at 1 p.m. There was limited parking and seating; people were eating in the waiting areas when they weren’t fighting over who would be seen next by the doctor. The stacks of medical records on the front desks were so high that you could hardly see the person at the desk. The patient “no show” rate was 50% and we spent more time moving charts from one pile to the next and back on the shelf (or in some providers’ car trunks). It was inefficient and not very patient friendly.

What has remained the same is the commitment of providers and staff to delivering quality health care. There has always been the desire to do more and better for our patients. My job, as I saw it, was to get the resources, space, and new systems to allow us to do just that. The commitment to our patients has always – and will continue to – drive us in all our decision making.

Growth has been a big theme over the last 25 years. Do you see that continuing? 

I was discussing this the other day. I do not remember ever having a “growth” plan stating that we were going to grow by a certain percentage in the next year or five years. Growth has come as we try to meet our patients’ needs. The first challenge was to get more space, and then get more providers to fill the space. The dream of a new facility at Prairie Avenue was the main goal for many years, starting in 2003 with the purchase of the property until we were able to open in 2012.

The addition of new sites and programs has really been about meeting our patients’ needs. Today, we deliver great care in clinical areas that previously necessitated us referring patients out of our system. We had no control over the specialty care they received in many cases. When I joined PCHC, we already had Dental and Asthma/Allergy services but have since added Optometry, Dermatology, Integrated Behavioral Health, Case Management, and Podiatry to name a few. Also, we knew we needed to do something to increase access to dental care for children. I am very proud of our $3 million investment in our new dental space which opened in 2014. This has resulted in an increase of over 5,000 new children now having access to dental care!

More growth is happening this year thanks to our new Atwood health center -- which gave us the capacity for 14,000 more patients -- and our expansion at Capitol Hill. In both cases, this has meant more space and new providers. The sad thing today is, there are not enough practices willing to care for our core group of patients anymore. Small practices are either closing or joining bigger groups; hospitals and health systems are focused on merging, rather than delivering primary care to underserved populations. I hope PCHC can continue to fill that need and be the medical home for everyone in Providence who needs primary care. 

Any specific moments that stand out over your PCHC career?

My second interview at PCHC (then called Providence Ambulatory Health Care Foundation) was something I will never forget. It was with a group of about 15 employees from every level of the organization. People were angry and loud and combative in stating all the issues; it was so hostile that I almost felt that the HR team was setting me up! But I knew what we could do, and hopefully shared enough of a vision to show that issues would be addressed. I was offered the job, and I don’t remember if that group approved of it or not, but I accepted, and we started the process of change. 

The other biggest moment was when the Board approved the building of the new Prairie Avenue health center. It was not easy; we were taking on a big risk, and the Board was very nervous. It came down to the final vote, and it really could have gone either way. There were a lot of sleepless nights in that whole process. Who had ever planned a $45 million dollar project in South Providence before, and then made it happen? No one else had, but the PCHC Board knew we needed the space. That grand opening in July 2012 was the start of the next wave of great things for PCHC.

What goals do you still want to achieve?

We have three facility projects that we need to complete:  a new or expanded Central health center, a new Adult Dental site, and a new site for the program for homeless patients. We are working on all three. I do not have an exact date for any of them, but Adult Dental will be in 2023 for sure. 

 Another goal is that we can answer the phone every day with a positive response for every new patient wishing to make PCHC their medical home. Today, we are turning away over 50 calls a day because we do not have capacity. My hope is that one day PCHC will be able to say yes to everyone who wants to come here.

Next year, the Board will begin work on our next 3-5 year Strategic Plan. I am excited to work with them on planning for the coming years to strategize and see how PCHC will continue to meet our patients’ needs through access to high quality care. At the same time, I would love to see us continue to be recognized as a “Best Place to Work” for our staff, who are the biggest reason we can make all these wonderful things happen every day.

Nurse shares her breast cancer journey

Nurse shares her breast cancer journey; encourages others to get screened

At the press conference announcing a $20,000 Crucial Catch grant to Providence Community Health Centers, Rachel DeBonis, BSN, RN, shared her story of breast cancer screening, diagnosis, treatment, and advocacy. Rachel, a nurse at our Asthma and Allergy Clinic, was one of the speakers at the event, which detailed a grant awarded by The American Cancer Society, New England Patriots Foundation, and National Football League to safely increase breast cancer screening in our community.  

The following are Rachel’s remarks from that day. Please read and act on her message: screening saves lives!

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My Story: Breast Cancer Awareness & Importance of Early Detection

by Rachel DeBonis, BSN, RN

I became an LPN in 2001 and in 2004, I received my Associate Degree in Nursing. In my career, I have worked in a variety of hospital settings including oncology, medical/surgical, and labor and delivery. In December 2012, I joined the Providence Community Health Centers (PCHC), Rhode Island’s largest health center network that serves more than 60,000 patients. I am both an employee of PCHC and a patient.

As I no longer had to work nights, weekends, or holidays, I reenlisted in the National Guard four years ago and decided it was time to complete my bachelor's degree. In January 2021, I was in my last semester and needed to choose a healthcare topic I felt passionately about for my final capstone paper.

I needed to write a paper on creating change. For my topic, I chose the importance of mammograms and the need for people to return to health screenings despite a global pandemic. Due to COVID-19, there had been gaps in screenings in every health care organization for a variety of reasons including the lack of in-person appointments and patient’s fears of leaving home for scheduled visits.    

In my research, I learned that an estimated 43,000 women in the United States were expected to die from breast cancer in 2021 and that breast cancer screening rates remain consistently lower among minority populations compared to that of Non-Hispanic Whites.

My last mammogram had been in July 2019. I was overdue and because of my topic, I made an appointment to be screened. The first available appointment was April 22, 2022, which I booked. 

While waiting the eight weeks until my appointment, I focused on my project. I had a huge list of overdue eligible patients for the provider I worked with and called them by phone. If I couldn’t reach them, I mailed letters along with educational information (in English and Spanish) on the mammography process and how safe and important it was. 

When breast cancer is identified early, there is a greater survival rate; identifying barriers to care and educating patients on how to overcome this is both challenging and rewarding. Approximately six months later, I learned my efforts at outreach had paid off and my team had a very high mammography screening rate.

The week of my mammogram appointment was my first week working with a new provider in our Allergy and Asthma specialty clinic. Much of what I am sharing next comes directly from a diary I kept.

April 22: I arrive early to the Anne Pappas Center for Breast Imaging at Rhode Island Hospital in hopes that I will be seen early and not be too late for work. I arrive to work only one hour late.

At 11 a.m. the same day, I receive an email through the patient portal that my mammo results are in. My mammo is abnormal. First time in the past seven screenings I have seen this. What is a spiculated mass? I Google it. 

A spiculated mass is a lump of tissue with spikes or points on the surface. It is suggestive but NOT diagnostic of malignancy. At noon, I call Anne Pappas to schedule an appointment for more imaging of my right breast, as suggested. I am able to make an appointment for the following week. The wait to know if I have cancer is excruciating.

The day finally arrives, and my ultrasound shows a mass that needs to be biopsied. Dr. Emily White, my OB-GYN at PCHC, faxes the order to have my mass biopsied that same day. There is NO family history of breast cancer, so I am hoping for the best.

The radiologist who performs the biopsy is honest with me and states it is most likely cancer. The biopsy will tell me which type. I will find that out in 2-5 business days. In the meantime, I meet with a patient care coordinator to pick out a breast surgeon and discuss the next steps.

April 30: Just two days later, I am discussing my biopsy results with the surgeon I had chosen. She is able to confirm that I have triple negative breast cancer and will need chemo. Next, I will need genetic testing and a breast MRI to make sure the ultrasound was accurate for size. The same day at 11 a.m., Dr. White calls me on the phone to check how I am doing. I tell her “So far, so good… just so much to process.” At 3 p.m., the surgeon’s office calls to tell me genetics will be contacting me via video call on May 6th and then I will have the MRI on May 9th, which also happened to be Mother’s Day.

Everything is happening so fast and I am feeling a bit overwhelmed. Depending on genetics results, I will know if I have a high probability of getting another breast cancer in the future. If that is the case, I will opt for a complete mastectomy.

May 10: It is the day after my MRI. I go to the hospital to have the genetic bloodwork done. Those results will be due in a week or so. At 2:45 p.m. of same day, I get a bit of good news. According to the MRI, the cancer is still just in my right breast, hasn’t grown much, and it did not appear as though it has yet spread to my nearby lymph nodes.

May 11: My husband and I meet with my cancer team. I am told there are very limited chemo therapies that work for triple negative breast cancer. I will start losing my hair after the second treatment. When I was told this, I start crying, not because I am vain, but because I cannot hide my diagnosis from anyone once that happens.

May 14: I speak with an RN from oncology for a TEACH. I will be receiving four rounds of Adriamycin every two weeks with a Neulasta shot one day post-treatment to boost my blood counts. Then two weeks after that chemotherapy ends, I will start Taxol for 12 weekly sessions. I also must get CBC bloodwork completed at least one day prior to every scheduled treatment. If I have bone pain, I can take Claritin. Mouth sores and constipation are very common side effects and everyone experiences neuropathy which is numbness, tingling, muscle weakness and pain. Sometimes it’s permanent. TOO MUCH INFORMATION! I am numb.

May 20: It is 10 days since my genetic testing. I get the news that my BRCA genes 1 & 2 are negative, which means my daughters should not inherit this. I will not be needing a complete mastectomy. The thing I learned about triple negative breast cancer is, if it reappears, it is more likely to return to another part of your body.

May 21: Had my cardiac echo today to determine if my heart is strong enough for chemo.

May 26: After going to nuclear medicine yesterday to have a dye injected within my breast area to “light up” my sentinel lymph node within right armpit for removal and testing, I am back at the hospital to have my tumor and lymph node removed. The next day my armpit is very sore.

June 8: Met with team today and had the steri strips removed from my armpit and breast. All looks well. Port placement scheduled for next week and my college graduation is in four days. So much has happened since choosing my research topic in January.

June 18: My port is placed for chemo access. It feels a bit itchy and uncomfortable, but I am sure I will get used to it.

June 23: I will work until 1 p.m. today because my first chemo is at 1:30 p.m.. I am feeling nervous…. How will I react to chemo?  I hate not knowing.

Last journal entry

June 25: Two days have passed since my first chemo session. Accessing the port didn’t hurt too much and the process took approximately 3 hours. I am just a bit tired.

I continued to be tired so I would work about 25 hours a week until treatments were over. Throughout my treatment, I would post weekly updates on social media urging my friends and family to get screened and to have them urge their family members and friends to go for screenings. I would be told later that I inspired approximately 1/3 of my eligible friend and family group… so, every dark cloud DOES have a silver lining.

November 3rd was my final chemo treatment. Two weeks later, I began my radiation. I received five treatments a week, ending December 28th. My goal was to start 2022 treatment and cancer-free.  I succeeded.


I would like to take this opportunity to thank everyone who was so kind and supportive while I was going through treatments starting with my husband and our six children who stepped up and helped more at home. The prayers I received from my church, friends, family, and co-workers meant a lot to me and gave me strength. I am so fortunate to have gone through this ordeal and be where I am today. The follow-up scans that I have had within the past two months have shown no evidence of cancer. 

Without getting that mammography when I did, the aggressive cancer I had would have spread to my lymph nodes. I don’t even want to think about how that would have changed this past year and my future. I feel honored to be able to speak for all the women who have gone through this battle, who are currently fighting this disease, and for those who have gone before us and are no longer here. You are all warriors!

The MOST important factor that determines prognosis in breast cancer is early diagnosis. Please, GO GET SCREENED!

PCHC College Unbound graduates

Congratulations to the latest PCHC College Unbound graduates

Congratulations to the fifth, sixth, and seventh Providence Community Health Centers team members to complete the College Unbound program. Christine Loesch, Gricelyz Montanez, and Zulema Gonzalez graduated on May 14, each with a Bachelor’s degree in Organizational Leadership and Change Studies. The graduates are pictured here from left to right.

Zulema, Enrollment & Project Manager, said PCHC has been very supportive of the College Unbound program, offering our classrooms as a teaching site and supporting employees with partial tuition reimbursement. Christine, an HR Business Partner, said the College Unbound schedule allowed her to go back and complete her degree while continuing to work full-time. Gricelyz, SMART Clinic Health and Wellness Coordinator at Mt. Pleasant High School, said she pursued the degree for herself and her children as well.

College Unbound is an innovative, degree-granting college focused on adults seeking a Bachelor of Arts degree. Congratulations to the graduates!

Lillian Nieves

PCHC's Lillian Nieves, PharmD, named Pharmacist of the Year

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Providence Community Health Center’s Lillian Nieves, PharmD, has been named the Guido L. Pettinicchio “Rhode Island Pharmacist of the Year” by the Rhode Island Pharmacists Association. Lillian will be recognized at RIPA’s annual dinner and awards ceremony on June 16, 2022 at Kirkbrae Country Club.

Lillian has positively impacted the lives of our patients - particularly those with diabetes, depression, and pediatric asthma – through her innovation and knowledge. Lillian is passionate about patient care and works to resolve barriers to care for patients.

“What I enjoy most about working at PCHC is being able to collaborate cross-functionally with clinical teams to improve patient care outcomes regardless of the patient’s ability to pay for their medications,” said Lillian. “As public health providers, pharmacists are called to mitigate suffering and ensure medication safety for the patients in our care.”

This past year, Lillian sought solutions to assist at-risk pediatric patients by using her clinical pharmacy skills to help providers optimize their patient’s asthma treatment plans. She developed and implemented pharmacy workflows to engage parents, children, and providers with the goal of improving the patient’s quality of life while decreasing ED/hospital utilization.

Prior to the pandemic, Lillian spearheaded a statewide initiative to decrease the number of automatic medication refills with a focus on continuous quality improvement. The goal was to improve the overall system of unnecessary medication refills to ensure safety for patients while eliminating burdensome prescription requests received by providers. During the COVID pandemic, Lillian worked to improve antidepressant non-adherence by ensuring patients picked up their first antidepressant prescription in the pharmacy. This pharmacy intervention proved to be 92.5% effective compared to the national average of 33%.

“PCHC has challenged me to apply my knowledge, experience, and clinical expertise to assure positive outcomes for all patients,” said Lillian. “Medications don’t work if patients do not take them. Promoting effective medication use requires that I treat the whole patient. This means identifying and addressing their barriers to obtaining optimal care. Once these barriers are addressed, it becomes much easier to move the needle and reach shared treatment goals.”

Congratulations to Lillian on this well-deserved honor!

Capitol Hill Grows to Meet the Needs of Community

Capitol Hill Grows to Meet the Needs of Community


Renovations to our Capitol Hill Health Center have been completed, which means more people in the community now have access to great health services. The new clinic space opened for patients on March 3rd, less than 10 months after a groundbreaking ceremony. The additional 3,616 square feet of space includes 10 new exam rooms (including a negative pressure room with direct access to the outside), a waiting room, team space, a provider room, and restrooms.

Capitol Hill Health Center is located at 40 Candace Street in Providence's Smith Hill section. Later this spring, Capitol Hill will hold a dedication ceremony in the newly-expanded space in honor of the late Dr. John Moran, a pediatrician who joined PCHC in 1973 as our first full-time physician and spent much of his career at Capitol.

The opening of this new space came just three days after the ribbon cutting for our ninth health center -- PCHC Atwood. We are excited to continue growing to meet the need for services in our community!



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Althea Graves, Dr. Espat, and Dr. Corcoran named to Board

Althea Graves, Dr. Espat, and Dr. Corcoran named to Board


Providence Community Health Centers is pleased to welcome three new members to our board including a member of our Community Advisory Council and two physician leaders.

althea webAlthea Graves has been a member of the PCHC Community Advisory Council since January 2020. She began her work as a community activist in 1972, when her mother, the late community activist Mary C. Jones, brought her to her first community event. Althea has served on numerous boards, committees, and commissions including the ONE Neighborhood Builders Board of Directors, Providence Community Library Board of Directors, Smith Hill Community Development Corporation, and Smith Hill Advocacy and Resource Partnerships. Althea is a retired educator and an outspoken supporter of healthy, inclusive, and equitable health services, education, and housing.

Espat headshot 2021N. Joseph Espat, MD, MS, FACS, is Chairman of the Department of Surgery and Director of the Cancer Center at Roger Williams Medical Center. A Professor of Surgery and Assistant Dean of Clinical Affairs at Boston University School of Medicine, Dr. Espat focuses his practice on Hepatobiliary and Surgical Oncology. Dr. Espat completed a Surgical Oncology/Hepatobiliary fellowship at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York. He completed residency and medical school at University of Florida College of Medicine. Dr. Espat is a committee member for several National Societies and is on the Editorial and/or Review Board of 20 Journals.

corcoran j russellJ. Russell Corcoran MD, FACP, is an internist and geriatrician who has a medical acupuncture practice in Narragansett. He is Medical Director of the HopeHealth Hospice & Palliative Care home care team serving patients in the southern half of Rhode Island. He has held numerous physician leadership positions during his career including as Chief Medical Officer at South County Health. Dr. Corcoran graduated from Medical School at Georgetown University and completed his residency at the Brown Program at Rhode Island Hospital. He has expertise in geriatrics, hospice, pain control, medical acupuncture, care of special needs patients, and Patient Centered Medical Homes.


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