Healthy Improvements: Annie Klapheke journeys with clients to a healthier lifestyle
By Erin Reder
Sitting on S. Annie Klapheke’s desk at the Good Samaritan Free Health Center in Cincinnati, is a picture of S. Anthony O’Connell, the heroic Civil War nurse and Sister of Charity who spent more than 20 years assisting the poor and sick at Good Samaritan Hospital. The photograph serves as a reminder to S. Annie of the Sisters of Charity’s long legacy in health care, one that she carries forward in her present ministry as a registered dietitian at the clinic.
Much like S. Anthony, S. Annie brings compassion and understanding to her patients. The clinic is an outpatient office for adults (18 and older) who have no health insurance; all services offered are free. S. Annie provides one-on-one nutrition counseling for patients with any diet-related diseases, such as diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, or obesity. An initial appointment begins with explaining to her patients why they need nutrition counseling and learning more about the patient’s normal eating habits. Once she has a better understanding of the patient and their routines, she then tries to meet them where they are at, adjusting their meals to make them healthier and offering suggestions of how to tweak their habits.
S. Annie’s interest in nutrition came after receiving her bachelor of science in biology from the University of Dayton. “At first I thought I wanted to be a high school science teacher,” she said. “I love to teach and enjoy giving instruction, but there were things about the traditional classroom setting that I couldn’t see myself doing long term. There were two things that I loved about studying biology – studying the natural environment and ecology, and studying human physiology and learning how the human body works. Looking back now I see how nutrition unites the two things.”
It was during a year of volunteer work that a housemate and nurse friend helped S. Annie to realize her passion. During their many conversations over health and food and cooking, she decided to go back to school to study nutrition and dietetics. S. Annie enrolled in the graduate program at The Ohio State University to receive her master of science in human nutrition while also doing the required course work to become a dietitian. She became a registered dietitian in 2013. It was during this time that she also began to discern religious life, moving to Anthony, New Mexico in 2014 to begin her year of Affiliation. Keeping her career close in various formation experiences, S. Annie eventually came to the Good Samaritan Free Health Center as a volunteer. Her passion for the ministry and her patients led to the organization securing the funding to hire her as a full-time staff member in 2017.
The clinic only sees uninsured patients. Many may have jobs, but they are underemployed or have jobs that don’t offer benefits or health insurance. Part of the draw for S. Annie is the large immigrant/refugee population that she has the opportunity to work with. “I keep track of my patients’ countries of origin,” she explains, “and I have seen people from 40 different countries since I started working here. It’s such a richness to hear about food traditions from all over the world and the many ways they try to continue cooking their traditional meals.” And with a majority of her clients speaking a language other than English, S. Annie has been grateful for the 12-week intensive Spanish course she took while living in Guatemala. She is able to converse with her Spanish-speaking clients on her own and uses the services of TriHealth to dial in to interpreters when needed.
Something S. Annie has found interesting in working with the immigrant population is their incredible culinary knowledge. She says, “In the U.S. there’s an obsession with health and nutrition and even if you have never studied nutrition you have a basic knowledge of what a protein or carbohydrate is. These words may be less familiar in other countries’ cultures; however, they know what to do with fresh fruits and vegetables. They don’t have all the processed food we have in the U.S. They know how to make meals from scratch because that’s what they have done all their lives. I encourage them to keep cooking and eating like they did in their home country.”
She says that there are many complex social determinants that get in the way of healthy eating, everything from affordability, easy access to fresh produce, and time. Many clients are working multiple jobs, oftentimes second or third shift, and have families and small children. It takes time to eat healthy, to go to the grocery store, and to plan and cook meals. The clinic does its part to help, partnering with local organizations, including SC EarthConnection, to provide fresh fruit and vegetables to clients in addition to easy recipes to prepare.
In addition, human behavior plays a large role in impacting the decisions of how and what we eat. For example S. Annie can meet with one patient for the first time and give them a list of things they should do and change and one or two months later, they will have changed everything. On the other hand, she may have a client who she’s been meeting with for two or three years and no changes have been made. For S. Annie it’s about learning the complexity of how some people can change their behavior and some can’t. Finances, the family you live with, culture – can make it much more complex. A person has to have all other aspects of their life in balance to support healthy eating.
One of the things S. Annie most enjoys about her ministry is being able to journey with her clients, particularly those she has been seeing for a couple years. “I am really humbled by what people are willing to share,” she explains. “The appointment is supposed to be spent talking about food, but food is impacted by so many parts of our life. Inevitably people are talking about their families, their kids, their work, their stresses, their joys. A lot comes out in our conversations, and you really form a relationship.”
The successes and small improvements she sees in her clients’ lives are rewarding. S. Annie remembers working with a gentleman who had Type 2 Diabetes and was originally scared and shocked by the diagnosis. After she started meeting with him, and after a lot of hard work and changes, the client’s average blood sugar level came down significantly, close to normal range. He happened to be in the clinic the day his results came back and she was able to give him the good news. “He burst into tears of joy,” she recalled. “He was so happy and excited. When someone comes back and has made improvements or they feel better, those are the moments that keep me going.”
Inspired by S. Anthony O’Connell, who was “the embodiment of humanity and charity,” S. Annie is a gentle, loving presence to her clients on their journey to a healthier lifestyle. She recognizes the hardships they experience in changing their behaviors, and she continues to be a source of encouragement and compassionate listening. What began more than 150 years ago with S. Anthony continues today as she carries forward the Legacy of Charity.