A Conversation with Home Health and Hospice Pioneer Clara Taylor Reed

During Black History Month, NAHC Report will be profiling various African-Americans who have made great contributions to American health care.

We wanted to share with readers a conversation we recently had with Clara Reed, PhD, BA, RN, the founder and President of Mid-Delta Home Health & Hospice in Mississippi and Lousiana.

Mrs. Reed began her nursing career after graduating in 1964 from Mississippi Valley State University’s Licensed Practical Nurses Program. She furthered her career by entering their Registered Nurses Program. She graduated from the program in 1970 with an Associate Degree in Nursing and later received her B.A. in Gerontology in 1990. Mrs. Reed organized and opened Mid-Delta Home Health in March 1978. She has developed Mid-Delta Home Health over the past 42 years into one of the most active modern home health delivery agencies in Mississippi. Mrs. Reed says her most rewarding experience is providing employment for over 600 dedicated professionals and non-clinical employees.

Mrs. Reed accepted her call to the ministry in December of 2000. She attended Wesley Biblical Seminary in Jackson, Mississippi. In July 2005, she founded Upper Room Fellowship Ministries and currently serves as Pastor. Upper Room’s first order of service was held on Sunday, July 25, 2005. She was ordained in December 2005 by the Ministers for Christ Assembly of Churches, Peoria, Arizona. In June 2011, Mrs. Reed enrolled in the Trinity Theological Seminary in Belzoni, MS where she furthered her seminary studies and graduated on August 3, 2013.

Mrs. Reed is the wife of former Sunflower County schoolteacher, Henry Reed, Jr., of Belzoni, who is now the Assistant CEO and Vice President of Physical Facilities of Mid-Delta Home Health, Hospice & DME. They have two children and one grandchild.

Mrs. Reed was kind enough to give NAHC Report some of her valuable time to discuss her experiences as an African-American nurse and home health and hospice owner.

NR: Why did you want to become a nurse?

CR: My fourth-grade teacher told me that I was born to be a nurse because I seemed to always be the one taking care of the other children’s scrapes, nosebleeds, and other minor health concerns even as early as the fourth grade, so I guess that my becoming a nurse was God’s plan for me. Why did you want to become a nurse? My fourth-grade teacher told me that I was born to be a nurse because I seemed to always be the one taking care of the other children’s scrapes, nosebleeds, and other minor health concerns even as early as the fourth grade, so I guess that my becoming a nurse was God’s plan for me.

NR: Why did you go into home health care rather than another part of health care?

CR: In 1963 I graduated from LPN school and went to work in a small hospital.  Then, I went to RN school and soon became the first Afro-American nurse to serve at the hospital in Belzoni as the Director of Nursing for that hospital.  During that time, I witnessed a lot of patients being readmitted to the hospital on a frequent basis due to their lack of knowledge regarding how they could manage their chronic illnesses in the comfort of their own homes.

NR: How did you come to open your own home health and hospice agency? 

CR: During the time that I was working in the hospital in the mid to late 1970’s, the federal government began to allow privatization of home health agencies. I believed I could better serve people by helping to prevent avoidable hospital readmissions and improve quality of patients’ lives, I decided that I should open a home health agency and provide the skilled education that patients could use to manage their chronic illnesses in the comfort of their own homes.

NR: What difficulties did you encounter as an African-American nurse that other nurses might never notice? 

CR: I was told by a competitor already in business that I would need $50,000 cash in order to open my own agency and that I would never be able to get it opened, and maybe he was right in part.  I went to several banks to borrow startup capital, but I was turned down.  But one bank in my hometown agreed to loan me $2,000 (without collateral because I had none.)

My first staff included a nurse’s aide, two RN’s, and two part-time secretaries.  I had applied for my state license in 1977, and we opened our doors on March 15, 1978 with that $2,000 I had borrowed from my local bank. After state surveys, we received our provider number in August 1978. We worked almost six months without pay as we used that $2,000 for gas money to see our patients. We had our claim forms filled out by hand, and when that provider number came, I handwrote it on each claim form. I then drove from Belzoni, Mississippi to Jackson, Mississippi to hand-deliver those Medicare claims to Blue Cross & Blue Shield of Mississippi (the Medicare intermediary at the time). After about six weeks, we got our first check. By December, we were able to bring the payroll current – talk about employee loyalty!

NR: What difficulties have you encountered as an African-American business owner that others in home health care have probably not encountered?

CR: When I first opened Mid-Delta Home Health in 1978, there were some white physicians who would not refer to us because of my Afro-American race.  I would go to the doctors’ offices and would sit for hours only to be told that the doctors would not visit with me after waiting.  I would leave with no referrals and with my feelings hurt.  But, I would go back in the next day or so and would then leave with my feelings hurt yet again because they would not visit with me.  I never stopped calling on them, and one day they gave me a patient to admit to home health service just to keep me out of their office.  I told my staff “we take great care of call of our patients, but we are going to demonstrate to the physicians that we are a caring agency and will take excellent care of their patients!”  Sadly, to this day, that same clinic and some others do not refer to my agency because it is a “Black” agency.  I am also sad to say that there were never more than four Black agencies and that my agency is the only remaining Black-owned agency in Mississippi.

At the time that we opened, I did not know of any Black-owned home health agencies in the state.

NR: What advice would you give to other African-Americans interested in nursing and/or home health care?

CR: Do your homework. Determine if there is a need for your skill or idea. Determine what the feasibility is related to your career or business idea and whether there is a need for additional services in the area you are targeting.

NR: How has home health care changed for African-Americans since you began your career in the industry?

CR: It hasn’t changed that much. We still deal with racism and issues that have nothing to do with the quality of care that we provide. There is still the same jealousy and envy, and we still struggle with being known as a “Black agency.” To this day, unfortunately, we still serve very few white patients because we are still referred to as “the Black agency.” However, we desire to serve all patients regardless of their race.

NR: What specific message would you like to convey for this Black History Month?

CR: If you don’t have one already, develop an intimate relationship with God. Also, don’t expect help or encouragement from anyone. Perseverance is key – come hell or high water. I certainly appreciate every one of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s messages, struggles, and his successes; however, I believe that if somehow we were able to ask Dr. King how we could best celebrate his birthday, he would tell us not to close the schools on his birthday. He would likely tell us that there should be an educational plan for that day. He would not appreciate the children doing anything – no lesson, no field trip, etc. We should never allow our children, grandchildren, or great-grandchildren to go into the next generation taking this month for granted. Each month should be a celebration of a moment in Black history highlighting the importance of education.

Today, Mid-Delta Home Health & Hospice is the only African-American home health agency in Mississippi, and I think that racism is a big problem experienced by African-American health care professionals. If you take a peek at how Black doctors and other professionals at all levels and of all specialties are still discriminated against in terms of support, promotion, leadership positions, you will quickly see that African-Americans are not valued at the level of other races in the same profession. So, it seems that our education level, our contributions to society, and the economic impact that we make in the communities in which we serve, do not matter very much.  So, whatever success we encounter is because we picked ourselves up by the bootstraps and weather through the storms which keep on coming.

NR: Thank you for your time, Mrs. Reed.

As Black History Month 2021 comes to an end, it is important for everyone in home care, home health, and hospice to think about the ways we can make our community more welcoming to people of color, so that everyone has equal access to the best possible care in the home and no one faces barriers to care or career advancement because of the color of their skin. NAHC is working to be part of the solution in our industry and we will continue our efforts until we all have the community we want and deserve.

The interview with Ms. Reed was edited for length.