Joanna Roberts

Joanna Mary Roberts, M.D., of Odd, passed away Thursday, December 22, 2016, at Marion Virginia.

Born March 12, 1938, in Buffalo, New York, she was a daughter of the late William M. Roberts and Helen Emily Grezchowiak Roberts.

In addition to her parents, she was preceded in death by two brothers, William M. Roberts Jr. and Robert W. Roberts.

She is survived by her sister, Susan Ellen Roberts, Ph.D., of Poughkeepsie, New York; her dear friend, Susan Burt, of Mill Point; goddaughters Sarah Burt-Kinderman Riley and Joanna Burt-Kinderman, both of Mill Point; long-time coworkers, Sisters Helen Malcheski and Gretta Schmitz of the School Sisters of St. Francis; and her devoted caretakers, Thelma and Terry “Turkey” Hubbard, of Marion, Virginia.

Joanna was a devout Catholic who dedicated her life to the service of others through her outstanding medical skills. She was a 1960 graduate of Antioch College, Yellow Springs, Ohio, and received her MD degree from the University of Buffalo in 1964, one of four women in her graduating class. (Today, more than half the students are women.) She interned at the Edward J. Meyer Memorial Hospital in Buffalo and did a residency there in internal medicine, which she completed in 1968.

Dr. Roberts then went to Mound Bayou, in the delta of Mississippi, where she practiced in the Delta Health Center under the leadership of Dr. Jack Geiger of Tufts University, serving a population of poor black people. Dr. Geiger became interested in the healthcare needs of this area as a volunteer with the Mississippi Freedom Summer in 1964.

The Delta Health Center was launched in 1967. As well as providing medical care, the staff focused on the social problems that undermined health in the region, such as hunger and unemployment. To ensure that members of the community could participate in decisions about their health and the future of their area, local people served on the board of directors and some joined the clinic staff. Beginning with this clinic and another in Boston, Massachusetts, the network of community health centers has today expanded nationwide.

While at Mound Bayou, Dr. Roberts began working with members of a teaching and nursing order, the School Sisters of St. Francis, a relationship which lasted throughout her medical career. After four years of service in Mississippi, Dr. Roberts practiced for the University of Wisconsin serving a Native American reservation, and in 1974 moved to Beckley to work with another neighborhood health center, the Mountaineer Family Health Plan. In a couple of years, she established an independent practice in the tiny town of Rhodell, in the midst of an area devastated by the loss of coal mining jobs, but continued for several years to be affiliated with MFHP. The initial Rhodell Health Clinic was located in a building which had a pool hall and beer joint in the other half. In 1977 she opened the St. Jude Clinic in Rhodell, where she continued to practice until poor health forced her to retire in 2012.

As one friend said, “Joanna Roberts practiced Cadillac medicine for a population who could for the most part just afford junkers.” Her diagnostic skills were well-known, and patients were willing to endure long waits to be seen because they knew every patient would receive the best care Dr. Roberts had to offer. She made many home visits, believing the patient could best be understood in their home environment. Long before Medicare made palliative care a reimbursable service, she made “hospice at home” a regular part of her medical practice, enabling dying patients to spend their last days in the surroundings they loved best, never charging them for this service.

She wrote in a speech: “God is present in the poor –– this has been a life-defining understanding for me. Church doctrine says God is present everywhere but especially in humans. He is a father with many children but those in need have his special attention. God hears the cry of the poor. He loves us all the same but his special blessing to the poor is his closeness to them. Others are blessed with prosperity. …

“One more observation to share with you. It has to do with what is stolen from the poor – dignity and self-respect. I have noticed that when the mainstream community has an attitude of disrespect, condescension, or disdain it has an infectious effect. Poor people incorporate this negative identification and dislike for themselves and pass it on to their children. It becomes a poison and a burden – sapping confidence.”

Dr. Roberts’ work was supported for many years by Joseph Hodges, Catholic Bishop of Wheeling-Charleston, who recognized her special devotion to Catholic service by naming her a Consecrated Virgin in 1995. The bishop who conducts the Rite of Consecration to a Life of Virginity for Women Living in the World by his ministry makes the virgin a “sacred person.”

A Funeral Mass for Joanna Roberts will be celebrated at Our Lady of Victory Basilica, Lackawanna, New York, Wednesday, January 3, at 10:30 a.m. with burial to follow at Holy Cross Cemetery in Lackawanna. Friends are invited to Dr. Roberts’ home on Odd School Road in Odd Saturday, January 7, from 1 to 4 p.m. to celebrate her life. A brief memorial service will be held at 4 p.m.

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