Healthcare in the Shadows

North Omaha Area Health

Posted by on Monday, June 29, 2015 in News.

NOAH summer interns practicing skills in class.

The North Omaha Area Health clinic (called NOAH by everyone in Omaha) may be located in a former nail spa but you can’t get a pedicure there.  What they do offer however, is far more valuable and free:  HIV testing, counseling and referral; screening for diabetes; screening for sexually transmitted infections; and blood pressure checks.  People with no insurance and few resources come in for all these services and more. Every kind of request for health and social services can walk through the door at any time.  NOAH is like an oasis in the desert: North Omaha is known for its low income, high poverty, high crime, and health disparities.


Ira Coombs, a nurse and instructor in the College of Public Health at the University of Nebraska, scrapes together grants and donations to keep the doors open, hoping to bring small doses of health and hope to the ‘hood’ as he puts it.  Ira grew up in the hood and he knows how it operates.  He uses his insider understanding to craft creative solutions that entice young people away from the cycles of poverty and violence, toward a more positive future.  NOAH offers 9-week internships for adolescents and young adults interested in health careers.  Ira teaches public health classes and instills vision.  The kids learn about possibilities and pathways to a different future.  Some will become clinic assistants and maybe one or two will make it through nursing or medical school.  All of them grow and learn. In addition to the internship program, NOAH offers a course called CPR in The Hood or Ghetto First Aid.  Kids learn very basic CPR and first aid… to save a friend or family member’s life.  He instills in them that they now have an obligation to act once they’ve been trained.

Mark Darby, BSN, RN is Ira’s practice partner at NOAH.  When he’s not at NOAH, he’s in school to become a nurse practitioner so he can offer full primary care to the NOAH clientele. On the day of my visit a 56 year old woman came in because she had difficulty with her vision.  Mark took a brief history and vital signs and then screened her near and far vision.  She has no insurance although she works full time; her income is low and she would likely qualify for expanded Medicaid but Nebraska has refused the expansion.  Mark told me that virtually every NOAH patient would qualify for expanded Medicaid if it were available.  This woman is given a referral to another agency where she can get definitive vision testing and glasses.

Mark Darby, BSN and Ira Coombs, MS--NOAH Healthcare Team

I asked Ira what happens when NOAH picks up signs of serious illness and the patient needs to be seen by a specialist.  “Do you have a certain physician group that takes your referrals? ” I wonder.  His answer was very straightforward:  “We call the ones we know will say yes, and we keep calling until we find the answer we need.”

Perseverance, patience, vision, hope, health promotion…..on a slim budget.  These are the hallmarks of NOAH and the foundation for improving health one patient at a time.

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