Certainly, Venus Lee, could never have predicted what was looming a few months ahead of her when she was hired in January 2020 as the new chief executive officer at GraceMed Health Clinics.

With more than 30-years experience in the medical industry, Lee – like others – had never seen anything like the COVID-19 pandemic. However, no stranger to leadership, Lee stepped up and did what she was hired to do, lead her team successfully through what lay ahead.

There was little time to rest on her laurels as the first female and first Black CEO in the organization’s history. It was time to dig in and lead effectively.

“There were some general guidelines that served as a framework for preparation for an influenza pandemic prior to COVID-19 and they provided a foundation for protocols, but this year we are dealing with a novel virus. So, the processes for things like testing and combatting the spread of the disease was and is constantly evolving for everyone involved,” said Lee.

Early on, GraceMed had to close its dental hygiene services, furlough some providers, and cancel some of their outreach programs in the schools due to closures and lack of PPE that would help the clinics adhere to Kansas Department of Health and Environment and Center for Disease Control guidelines to keep their workers safe. By June, GraceMed had made it over the hump, brought back their staff and was ready to tackle what might come next.

First African American CEO

Originally from Wyandotte County, Lee, 50, received her MBA from Wichita State University, and doctorate in theology from Emory University. Lee has specialized in medical management her entire career, and was an internal promotion to CEO after serving as GraceMed’s associate executive officer since 2013.

GraceMed, with its legacy of Christ-centered care for the underserved, has proven to be a perfect fit for Lee.

“I would say that my faith is what defines me, by which I certainly mean my faith in a loving, living God,” noted Lee. “I’m also a person who likes to invest a lot of faith in the fundamental decency and capability of the people around me. Helping people access the faith that God has in them, and draw strength from that, is something that really inspires me.”

Faith-Based beginnings

Today, GraceMed may be one of the largest Federally Qualified Health Centers (FQHC) in Kansas, but it comes from humble, faith-based beginnings. Known initially as the “Mi Casa Su Casa Clinic,” the organization was formed in 1977 as a ministry of St. Paul United Methodist Church in downtown Wichita, and provided pre-natal care to a predominately Hispanic patient base.

The organization’s relationship with the United Methodist Church and local hospitals expanded, as did its services, and the organization finally found a clinic location and their name was changed to United Methodist Health Clinics.

Renamed GraceMed, the organization now operates 16 clinics in four Kanas communities – Wichita, Topeka, McPherson and Clearwater. Twelve of the locations are in Wichita. The clinics provide primary medical care, dental, vision and behavioral care. The reach of the organization is so vast that they serve one in every 20 community health center patients statewide. 

While their clinics are open to people who have insurance, they care for anyone who is either uninsured, or underinsured and would otherwise depend on an emergency room for care.

Handling a Crisis

As the leader of GraceMed, Lee said her biggest challenge was to manage the COVID-19 crisis without losing focus on the facts; they still had a network of health clinics to run, which already served many patients around Kansas.

“We identified the members of a team who could break away each day to concentrate on COVID testing, but we also made changes to the operation of clinics,” stressed Lee. “Our goal is to keep people safe. Doing so made it easy for us to identify candidates for COVID testing at the clinics as well.”

Through the pandemic, all of the clinics have continued to receive patients; implementing a variety of operational changes made the process less chaotic. Enhancements in telemedicine technology made it possible for the organization to expand their reach in behavioral health services, and GraceMed praoviders are also available for remote medical appointments.

Right now, the organization is in a good financial position, and Lee praises her team on how they handled the first wave of the pandemic.

A Lesson in Faith

“I think this is a unique time in our history where we’ve been able to witness just how critical that mission of faith is to public health,” said Lee. “If anything, this experience has sharpened our resolve as a ministry to keep looking for ways to be of service, to everyone in the community, but especially to the people on the margins who need us most.”

When it comes to Kansas’ health sector, Lee feels the medical community has gained some invaluable experience that will translate to lessons taught in the future.

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