Tribune Tribute: Phyllis Qualheim

Anthony Gonzalez Staff Reporter

November 22, 2013

Editor’s Note: This is a reprint of an article published on April 12 relating to the longest serving volunteer of Grace Clinic. The Elkin clinic offers free medical services to the uninsured and has been fundraising to offset a budget shortfall.

Phyllis Qualheim may be assisted with a walking cane, but she’s not tired.

“As long as I’m taking up space and breathing, I’m obligated to put something back,” said the bold and tenacious 86-year-old.

Qualheim was born in Greensboro. She grew up a bit in Elkin, Hickory, then Newton, back to Greensboro, and then back to Elkin, “with college thrown in there,” she said.

“It means I’m from around,” Qualheim said with a chuckle while looking at colleague John Anderson, who sits to the left of her no-frills desk at Grace Clinic in Elkin.

“I was born on July 26, 1926. That doesn’t make me old. It just makes me older than you,” said Qualheim, lifting her head higher with pride when talking about her age. “What do you mean I was nominated for a Tribune Tribute? You mean to tell me you want my story? Well, you better sit down for a bit because you’ll need a lot of time to talk about my life.

“Some people say because of my age that I may not remember as much. You see my friend right here next to me? He’s way younger than I am. Now let me tell you, John told me one day that his memory was getting so bad that he can hide his own Easter eggs,” said Qualheim.

After hearing Qualheim use his name, her colleague, John Anderson, paused from his task. He looked sideways at Qualheim with a nod, suggesting he agreed with her.

“I had three children. I was living in Kansas. My husband died in 1957. He committed suicide,” said Qualheim.

The room became silent. Everyone was aware of the story, but paused to honor the tribulations of a woman battered and bruised by losing her husband, forced to raise her children as a single parent, forced to explain to her kids that their father took his life in such an unexplainable way that she still to this day can’t make any sense of it.

Regardless, Qualheim speaks kindly of her husband, Robert, a man who finished medical school, two years of residency in Pathology, two years in the Army, one year in England and then to Germany.

Time may have passed, but her memory of “Robert moments” are part of Qualheim.

She never remarried.

“Came close a couple times,” she admitted. “I’m still looking.”

Though content with the results of life, Qualheim as a widow credits wonderful parents, Louise and Harry Johnson. She said her father was the first surgeon at the old hospital, which is now Chatham Woods. The hospital was sponsored by the First United Methodist Church.

Qualheim comes from a family of doctors.

“My father, my husband, my brother, my son are all medicine,” she said.

According to Qualheim, her father was born and raised on a farm, but they didn’t want to farm.

“He had ambition to do more, not that farming is bad. He struggled his way through it, and so it was. He became a doctor,” said Qualheim. “My husband had a disease of his knee, which his local doctor picked up, and he used it as motivation. He could have received a scholarship to med school but rejected it because he said that his family could afford to pay for it.

“I had done some pediatric nursing in Kansas,” continued Qualheim. “I loved doing pediatric nursing, but you take the babies home in your head. You get rid of them by going back to work the next day and put them back in the crib.”

Putting life in perspective, Qualheim says she’s been able to manage things her own way. Her biggest fear was when her oldest child was 8 and asked about Robert.

“That’s when I sat down with my daughter. I cried, she cried, as I explained to her about how Robert died. She swore that she wouldn’t ever ask about it again and never did. For me that was a blessing because I didn’t have to talk about it,” said Qualheim while crying.

Qualheim avoided a change in topic. Though baited on shifting the conversation to a more pleasant memory, she would have none of it.

“The price my daughter paid was significant. She hated him for years because he left her,” revealed Qualheim.

“My son was 3 at that time. I always wondered about how he accepted it, but he wonders how you can mourn for someone you don’t know,” she said.

On Qualheim’s terms, she eventually moved off the topic.

“In a nutshell, I graduated from high school in Greensboro. I attended Salem College for women in Winston-Salem. That school is held together by tradition instead of mortar,” she said proudly.

“I transferred to a degree program at the University of Cincinnati and received a bachelor’s in nursing in 1948. I really didn’t use it but for a short time before my children.

Qualheim’s parents died in 1961 and 1966. She’s managed not to have to work for money, but she’s been busy.

“Girl Scouts, Cub Scouts, PTA, church, I’ve done it all,” she said.

In 1965 the minister of Qualheim’s church asked her to be secretary for the church. Qualheim said that she didn’t think that was possible because she couldn’t type. A typewriter was rounded up, and she learned it.

Armed with typing skills, Qualheim worked at the Methodist church for a decade.

“I was the camp nurse for a month at Y-Camp too for six years in exchange for my kids getting to go to camp,” said Qualheim. “I traded my time for my kids.”

“While I was secretary, the man who headed Surry County Mental Health, Jimmy Shaw, wanted to have a satellite clinic. … It was a foot in the door. He knew I was a nurse, so he asked me to help with the mental health clinic. The clinic merged with Yadkin and then it became Crossroads. I’ve been somehow and in some way affiliated, especially as an advocate. Now I am at Grace Clinic and volunteer Thursdays,” Qualheim said with a smile.

“I’ve been doing volunteering for the MARC program. That’s the Medication Access and Review Program,” she said.

“The computer program is a state program,” Anderson chimed in. “It gives us all the information to connect with pharmaceuticals. So far we distributed $2,301,809 in medication since the program was used.”

“That’s at no cost to clinic or patient,” said Qualheim, who is credited as being vital toward spearheading the local distribution program.

“I started doing the program in 2000,” she said.

“Next is hip surgery, so I may need some of that medication,” Qualheim said with a chuckle.

And when she gets her hips back, Qualheim expects to take up clogging.

In the meanwhile, Qualheim says she hopes to spend some time in Allegheny County. “I have a house in Allegheny County I consider heaven. It’s just a place to recharge the batteries.” she said.

“If I had more money I’d travel some more too,” revealed Qualheim. “The farthest place I’ve traveled was Ecuador. The American Field Service in 1974 was the first year they allowed a single parent into the student exchange program.

“I went to France for two summers. I’ve been to Israel. Heck, I’ve been around. I’m 86, you know,” Qualheim reminded all in the room.

Qualheim’s daughter lives in Raleigh. “Her name is Marti Sparrow; she’s my little bird. Two sons who are married, Avery and Andrew Sparrow. Avery has a son who’s my only great grandchild.

“My son, Dr. Bob Qualheim, is a doctor in Boone. He’s been there for the last seven years. He came to Elkin and had office hours before that.

“My youngest died when she was 26. She had cancer. Cathy Church is her name. She married Larry Church. She had a baby who was nine months old. Larry remarried and we’ve had little contact. I think Larry wanted to consolidate the marriage and stop visits,” said Qualheim.

“I can say that I’m tired of character building experiences. However, in my life I can say that I have lots of pearls,” Qualheim said graciously.

“Some things don’t have an explanation, but the church, my faith, it’s all been there for me and that’s how I keep going.

“My story doesn’t have a destination. The journey continues,” boasted Qualheim.

“I nominate her as a volunteer of the year,” said Anderson.

“I was mother of the year in the ’60s,” Qualheim responded. “I’m not sure if they do that stuff any more, but if they don’t, they should.”

Reach Anthony Gonzalez at 835-1513 or at agonzalez@civitasmedia.com.