When she was in high school, Sylvia Flack worked as a maid at the same Spindale hospital where her father worked as an orderly.
Flack was only allowed to work as a maid, “because you couldn’t work as anything else at that time,” she said. She worked in the part of the hospital known as The Annex, where black patients were placed.
“Even as a maid, when I would work on that unit, I did things that nurses did,” she said. “The regular nurses would bring me the medicines, then tell me to give them to the patients. And I knew that this was not what it’s supposed to be. I made up my mind right then that health care was what I was going to do. All women could do at that point (in medicine) was nursing and teaching, so that’s how I got started.”
It’s also how Flack first became aware of the disparity in health care services between whites and minorities, when she saw how the latter group often didn’t get the same level of medical treatment.
Since then, Flack has worked decades into trying to achieve parity in health care among all races and socio-economic groups in the Winston-Salem area and beyond.
For her work, Flack, the founder and executive director for WSSU’s Center of Excellence for the Elimination of Health Disparities, is being honored with the 2015 Gov. Holshouser Award for public service among faculty members of the University of North Carolina system.
“I’m very excited about it, the whole campus is excited about it, because it gives us the opportunity to showcase one of our superstar faculty, and that means a lot,” WSSU Chancellor Elwood L. Robinson said. “It brings great attention to the university. Her work has meant a lot to mean personally. She’s been an institution for the last 25 years, serving in a variety of capacities. She has been a mentor to me in the work she has done.”
Flack said that as a teenager, she didn’t know exactly how the system worked – only that it wasn’t right.
“The awareness came when I came to Winston-Salem State to work on the nursing program and developing the school of nursing science, and I was seeing these disparities, not only in health, but in health care.”
Winston-Salem State’s leadership decided that something needed to be done to address the disparity, and Flack was the one to take the lead.
Building a Program
Flack, a 1968 graduate of Winston-Salem State, was eventually brought back by her alma mater 26 years ago with a specific, if not-so-simple, goal: to save the university’s struggling nursing program. She became the first dean of the School of Health Services, serving from 1990 to 2005.
“Former Chancellor Cleon Thompson brought me here in 1989 because the school was losing its nursing program,” she said. “But not only that, I knew the significance of a nursing program to a particular area and how important it was for this university to not lose that program.”
Flack went about addressing both issues – saving the program and giving better health care to area residents – by going out into the community to rally support. She founded the Academic Primary Care Center, which provided health services to more than 4,000 residents of public housing.
The program was significant not only because it provided health care to an underserved part of Winston-Salem and gave nursing students practical experience to learn their craft, but also provided plenty of research and data that Flack and others have used to illustrate health disparities.
“I was trying to make people aware of why we needed the nursing program,” she said. “I was trying to make them aware that we were losing it, because they just didn’t believe it. But from that point, we really did grow the health care programs here on campus, which is significant to Forsyth County. After that, I had the opportunity to work with one of the major issues in Forsyth County and actually in the state of North Carolina and in the nation.”
Flack sought to address the fact that many minorities often had more health care issues than the white population.
In helping to create the Center, Flack recognized the importance of not just having adequate health care in place for people who became ill, but also to take a preventative approach by educating the community on better health practices.
Over the years, that’s included getting increased access to care for minority and disadvantaged residents of public housing; getting funding for a variety of research projects and services in the community; giving nursing students on-the-job, real-world experience by sending them out into the community; and creating partnerships between the university and a variety of local organizations, including the government, churches, the medical community, the school system and social services in order to address health issues en masse.
Flack noted that some minority populations are particularly susceptible to a variety of diseases, including heart disease, diabetes and sickle cell anemia. For Flack, getting to the root of the problem isn’t just figuring out which groups are affected by health issues, but why they are affected as well.
“We get the benchmark so that we can compare them,” she said. “But why do they do that? That’s the question. Why is there such a disparity? When you start to drill down, start to look at it, it has a social context. We’re talking about people who have experienced the most unemployment, people who live in areas where there are low resources. It’s sometimes hard to believe. This is 2015! Some of these individuals live in places where there’s not a good food source.”
Flack said she tries to bring awareness of such issues to the greater community.
“If you’re not aware, you’re not going to do anything about it,” she said.”
Flack has received numerous recognitions over the years for her tireless efforts, and some of her work has expanded to a national level. The city recognized her work when it proclaimed May 6, 2014 as “Dr. Sylvia A. Flack Day,” while Forsyth County established the Dr. Sylvia A. Flack Endowed Scholarship for masters and doctoral students studying to eliminate health disparities. Winston-Salem Mayor Allen Joines said Flack has been a valuable resource for the area.
“As Mayor, I have had the opportunity to see first-hand the impact of Dr. Flack’s work to address health disparities in our community and across the state,” he said. “She has lead a number of city-wide symposiums on this issue and as result has brought significant attention to issue of providing better health care to low income families. I am delighted that she is being honored by the UNC system for her tireless dedication to this important subject.”
Flack founded the Community Family Practice and Wellness Center, an academic primary care facility located in the Winston-Salem Housing Authority’s public housing and family services. For a decade, residents received care from students and faculty from Winston-Salem State’s School of Health Sciences.
Academically, she has authored and co-authored several papers on various topics about or related to health disparities.
“She has brought a lot of attention to health disparities to this county, to this state, to this region and to this country, and her work has been nothing short of phenomenal,” Robinson said. “She is looked upon as one of the leading forces in bringing about change in those areas.”
In addition, she has helped to secure over $10 million in grant money to various projects and scholarships from the National Institute of Health, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
Leslie Gaynor, who serves as program director at the Center of Excellence, said seeing Flack win the Holshouser award means a great deal to everyone who works with her.
“Dr. Flack is an icon at this university,” she said. “I knew of her before I knew her. She is a very humble person, and she takes adoration and congratulations and awards – she’s almost embarrassed to get those. But she is so deserving.”
Written by Phillip Ramati
Photos from Winston Salem State University
Published October 30, 2015