About this profile: TAPInto Camden is publishing an ongoing series about entities that are giving back to Camden through philanthropy, job training and other community supports.

CAMDEN - Virtua Health has served the health care needs of Camden residents since the 1880s.

It began as the West Jersey Health System, and now upholds that promise of personalized care to ensure quality of life at Virtua Our Lady of Lourdes Hospital on Haddon Avenue.

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The 325-bed hospital is a regional destination for high-acuity cardiovascular care, including heart attack treatment, robot-assisted bypass surgery, valve repair and replacement, and heart rhythm care. The hospital is also home of the Penn Medicine Virtua Health Neurosciences Program, providing advanced neurosurgical care for stroke, aneurysm, traumatic brain injury, and more.

The statue of Our Lady atop the hospital reflects tranquil green light each evening following a transplant procedure, serving as a beacon of hope for the entire Camden neighborhood.

Across town is the campus for Virtua Health – Camden, a city block’s worth of services that includes a satellite emergency department.

“If we want people to be proactive about their health, we need to meet them half way. And we do that by bringing affordable services directly into the communities that need them most, including Camden,” said Dennis W. Pullin, president and CEO of Virtua Health.

In 2019, Virtua opened a 34,500-square-foot Health & Wellness Center on the Virtua Health – Camden site, which includes a behavioral health program; primary care, pediatric and dentistry practices and an “Eat Well” Food Farmacy.

For children, as well as the entire family, the Food Farmacy program offers nutrition education, social support services, and access to free produce and nonperishable groceries. The goal is to serve patients with dignity and respect while empowering them to manage their medical conditions through sustainable food-related behavior and lifestyle changes, Pullin said.

The food farmacy is part of the larger “Eat Well” umbrella of programs, he added. Virtua recognizes that the social determinants of health – the conditions under which people live and work – greatly influence health-related behaviors and outcomes. That is why it has prioritized matters of food access. After all, healthy foods are the foundation for healthy living.

Virtua’s two mobile Eat Well programs frequently visit Camden communities. The Eat Well Mobile Farmers Market increases the availability of afford fresh produce year round, and the Eat Well Mobile Grocery Store brings a full range of deeply-discounted grocery items to neighborhoods that do not have easy access to supermarkets.

April Schetler, assistant vice president of community health engagement at Virtua, said what’s most exciting about the hospital’s food access programs is the way they engage and involve city children.

“A child of four years old – or even 14 years old – is establishing eating habits for life,” Schetler said. “The earlier we can introduce children to fruits and vegetables, the more we prepare them for a lifetime of healthy eating. In doing so, perhaps we can reverse some of the health disparities that lessen the quality of life for their parents and grandparents.”

Virtua has additional mobile programs to bridge the transportation gap around Camden. The mobile mammography program features a converted bus that provides screenings for women who are uninsured or underinsured in Camden County. The Mobile Pediatric Services Program screens for signs of developmental delays and tests for lead poisoning and provides flu shots, among other services.

“Children are among the more vulnerable members of our society,” noted Maria Emerson, director of Virtua’s Pediatric Mobile Program. "We want to remove the barriers that prevent children from receiving basic-but-vital care, so we screenings and services to them at libraries, schools, community centers, and places of worship.”

“Whether it’s the statue of Our Lady atop the hospital or the mobile programs making the rounds, Virtua’s presence in Camden is visible and meaningful,” said Dr. Reg Blaber, executive vice president and chief clinical officer, Virtua Health. “We will continue to invest in the city and its people as we work to improve the quality of life of residents and remove barriers to care.”

Virtua’s commitment to Camden includes:

  • From November 2020 to March 2021, Virtua’s Food Farmacy inside the Virtua Health & Wellness Center – Camden distributed a total of $2,000 in Community Food Bucks, vouchers that are redeemable for produce at local markets.
  • From January 2020 to mid-April 2021, 280 unique patients participated in a total of 1,095 Food Farmacy appointments.
  • In 2020, the Virtua Mobile Pediatric Unit provided 1,349 screenings to young Camden residents. These occurred at 31 community locations, including schools, daycares, community centers, housing complexes, and homeless shelters.
  • Each November, Virtua distributes more than 500 free turkeys outside the Virtua Camden campus. Recipients also receive a bag full of fresh produce to ensure a bountiful Thanksgiving dinner.

“Virtua has shown its steadfast commitment to Camden residents by advancing and supporting holistic programs that improve social determinants of health,” said Kris Kolluri, President & CEO of Cooper’s Ferry Partnership. “To that end, we are grateful for the partnership Cooper’s Ferry and Virtua have built over the years to implement the Get Healthy Camden initiative.”

About the author: Jonathan Jaffe - a publisher of TAPInto Camden - is president & CEO of Jaffe Communications, Inc., a full-serve public relations agency that promotes business. Click here to learn more.