Read the transcript below or tune in here to the interview as Board Chair and NeighborHealth founder Susanne Berger explains in a recent interview with North Carolina Family Policy Council. Susanne discusses her personal story of faith and vocation, as well as the mission and story of NeighborHealth Center.
July 20, 2018
Thank you for joining us for this week’s Focus on Faith edition of Family Policy Matters. I am sure we’re all familiar with Jesus’ two great commands to love God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength, and to love our neighbor as ourselves. We know that service is an important part of living out these commands, and today we are joined by a woman who has taken that charge to heart as a nurse throughout her life and even more so recently through her work to establish a new kind of healthcare outreach right here in North Carolina. Today, I am delighted to be joined by Susanne Berger, founding member and Board Chair of NeighborHealth Center, a new faith-based health center that seeks to serve Christ by providing primary care to patients of all ages regardless of whether they have health insurance. Susanne Berger, welcome to Family Policy Matters; it’s great to have you on the show.
SUSANNE BERGER: Thank you. It’s good to be speaking with you.
THOMAS GRAHAM: Susanne, this show is really about telling the stories of individuals who have been motivated into action by their faith. Take us back and give us an introduction to your life story, particularly the role of faith in your upbringing and family, and how that has grown or changed over the years.
SUSANNE BERGER: Thomas, I grew up in a very loving home where both of my parents had come to faith in Christ in their late twenties while raising their family. I grew up in West Virginia, and while we were never poor, both my parents were from working-class homes and were the first to graduate from college. They sacrificed for us to do the same. They raised us in the faith, and they taught us about the Lord. I accepted Jesus as my savior at a very young age, grew up going to church and having a relationship with the Lord, and quite frankly, grew up very happy and with very little suffering, I’ll have to say. Went to college, got a nursing degree, married and moved here to Raleigh where we raised our four children. My faith has changed over the years, primarily because I believe initially I was a bit naïve. I think life gets hard as we grow up and suffering comes along, and suffering can mature us, and it certainly has for me.
THOMAS GRAHAM: Susanne, as a nurse in both hospital and clinic settings, what role has this faith played as both a guide and a support in your work?
SUSANNE BERGER: I would say as a guide, certainly being a Christian guides me ethically as a nurse. There are many situations where I have prayed and asked the Lord to guide and direct me to do the right thing. It certainly gives me a bigger picture. My perspective as a Christian is that this life is not all there is, that we are here on this Earth for a little while and we are eternal beings. So, as I have practiced nursing and seen life and death, certainly my faith informs me there. I’ve seen too that people react to illness and suffering in very different ways, and I’ve seen people who are strong Christians model for me what it’s like to suffer, and what it’s like to cling to Jesus when illness hits and things are hard.
THOMAS GRAHAM: And I’m sure you have a number of stories that you could share if we had the time today. Susanne, what need did you see that spurred you to work on this particular project of opening NeighborHealth Center? Was there a specific need?
SUSANNE BERGER: You know initially, the need I saw was simply in an after-school mentoring program, right here in Raleigh downtown, at Neighbor to Neighbor, which is an outreach in Southeast Raleigh. I would go once a week with my husband, and mentor for an hour—read with a student after school. And as a nurse, I began to see that student more holistically, and perhaps see the illness that kept them from mentoring, or the family dynamics that made paying for healthcare hard. That was initially what spurred me on. But primarily, it was being on the other side of healthcare and spending most of 2006 as a patient. When I was diagnosed with ovarian cancer and treated, I certainly had a tremendous experience of seeing the inequity of healthcare up close and personal when I had to go through treatment and I had every support necessary. I was fully insured, I had prayer support, I had family support, I had people bringing me meals, and I was in a chemotherapy room taking chemo beside people who had none of that. That was a huge driving force for me. It was a calling. It was a calling to move forward with this effort called NeighborHealth.
THOMAS GRAHAM: What’s coming to mind, Susanne, when listening to that part of your story—we go back into the gospels and we see at one point, Jesus looked over the multitudes and His heart just broke for the people there, all of their needs. Of course, at the top of the list of His concern was their spiritual needs, but then their physical welfare etc. It is so heart-warming to hear. I’m sorry you had to experience what you did but it looks like the Lord took an interest in you even in the midst of that crisis situation in your own personal life, and allowed from that to come this wonderful ministry. So, let’s talk about NeighborHealth Center. Who does it serve and what kind of services are offered, Susanne?
SUSANNE BERGER: NeighborHealth is a new faith-based community health center. We serve all ages and we welcome patients with insurance, without insurance, with Medicaid, Medicare. So we are excited to be open. Just opened in June! Praise the Lord for that! We are providing a full range of primary care services.
THOMAS GRAHAM: What makes this model different from a traditional healthcare provider or other government or community health centers?
SUSANNE BERGER: There are a few things that make us different. One is that we are a faith-based. That is a word that’s tossed around these days, but what that means for us is that, as a staff, we are believers in Jesus and followers of Jesus. We pray together. And there’s a Board, the staff and Board. We are, of course, a non-profit organization. We certainly give patients the opportunity to pray. We offer to pray with them. We will see patients of any faith, all faith, no faith, without discrimination, but we are very open about the fact that we do this because we believe this is what Christ has called us to do. We’re also different in that we’re located in west central Raleigh. We did not want to reinvent the wheel and locate where other safety net healthcare providers are, so we looked at where the need was not being met as Raleigh grows.
THOMAS GRAHAM: Sounds wonderful. I certainly appreciate so much the heart or the vision of the heart that you and others shared together in order to bring this ministry into fruition. How can those of us who are not medical professionals help address this problem of access to healthcare in our own communities, Susanne?
SUSANNE BERGER: I would say to pray. I would pray and ask the Lord to open your eyes to the need. And I would encourage people to befriend someone different from themselves. I would encourage those in churches to reach out. Raleigh has recently been designated a gateway city for refugees, there are resettled refugees in Raleigh that churches can adopt.We would love to see, and we have already begun seeing some refugees. We believe that is a huge witness and an opportunity to minister. I would also encourage people to support efforts like NeighborHealth. There are many faith-based clinics around North Carolina, and certainly there are ways to offer transportation, to offer financial help, there are lots of things to do.
THOMAS GRAHAM: As we bring this interview to a close, and I’m sorry we don’t have more time to discuss more about this wonderful ministry. Susanne, what advice do you have for young, faithful Christians who want to get into the medical field, but who might be concerned about how they can remain faithful to Christ in an increasingly hostile world?
SUSANNE BERGER: That’s a good question. My simple advice would be to stay humble, to pray that the Lord shows you where to draw the line, and where you stand in Him. I believe that we as Christians need to be clear about who we are. Christians, especially in healthcare, we can be kind. And should issues arise where hostility is expressed, we do not respond in kind and we can give a gentle answer and a firm answer, and speak the truth in love.
THOMAS GRAHAM: I can tell you’ve read your Bible and you’re speaking the Bible’s truths in your answers, which I am so grateful for and I’m sure our listeners appreciate that as well, Susanne. Where can our listeners go to learn more about the good work of NeighborHealth Center?
SUSANNE BERGER: Our website is neighborhealthcenter.org and our phone number here in Raleigh is 984-222-8000. We would love to hear from folks.
THOMAS GRAHAM: I am sure you would Susanne. Just listening to your voice, and the warmth and the love that’s in your heart, I am sure people will be very well received when they do place their calls and come to inquire.
Susanne Berger, thanks so much for being with us on Family Policy Matters today and for your servant’s heart and good work to serve the vulnerable in your own community. God bless you and God bless the work of NeighborHealth Center.
SUSANNE BERGER: Thank you Thomas. It’s been a joy to be together, and God bless the work of the North Carolina Family Policy Council.