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Health Professions alumna commits to community health — and its next generation of leaders

Health Professions alumna commits to community health — and its next generation of leaders

By: Allyson Crowell

Diane Mathews spent the first half of her career as a dedicated medical technologist, analyzing blood and fluids in a clinical laboratory and diagnosing blood-related cancers alongside pathologists.

But something changed at age 35, while working in Virginia, when Mathews found herself on the other end of the diagnosis. She would spend a full year of her life waging a successful fight against breast cancer but using every possible weapon, including surgery, reconstruction, radiation and a bone marrow transplant.

"After surviving breast cancer, I decided I didn't just want to look through the microscope anymore," Mathews said. "After a life-threatening diagnosis, you realize that you're not guaranteed another day, let alone a year or years. You become braver."

She wanted to go back to school, to get out of the lab and into the community. She wanted to help people.

In 1994 Mathews enrolled in the Master of Science in Health Professions Education program at MUSC's College of Health Professions. There she found purpose for the second half of her working life and, in recent months, a cause to support in her estate plans.

Following graduation, Mathews' mentor suggested a job at the Lowcountry Area Health Education Center (AHEC). AHEC connects students to health-care careers, professionals to communities and communities to better health, all with the goal of improving statewide access to quality medical care.

Mathews applied for a coordinator position in rural Hampton County and landed the job on the spot. She packed up her life and moved to nearby Walterboro.

"I believe in trying to get primary care providers into the rural and underserved areas," Mathews said. "I also believe in diversifying the work force."

The way she sees it, people are more likely to get the medical care they need if they can relate to the people offering that help. September will mark Mathews' 20th anniversary with AHEC — her entire post-graduate career.

Dr. David Garr, executive director of South Carolina AHEC, said Mathews' commitment to community health reflects in every program that she oversees. Her new office, he said, stands as a physical reminder of her dedication. Not only does AHEC's new headquarters serve as a training center but also an educational space available to other local groups.

"The Lowcountry AHEC is a community-responsive organization," Garr said. "Diane often reminds us that we need to represent the voice of the people we're serving."

On a recent lunch meeting at a café inside a Christmas decoration store in downtown Walterboro, she paused periodically to wave to other local residents passing by. A Chicago native, Mathews said she loves the close-knit community of which she's become such a significant fiber.

Seven years ago she married Colleton County Public Defender David Mathews. The couple met when she reported for jury duty, complaining about missing work, and he helped her find a place to park.

Mathews credits her alma mater, in part, for the life she's built. She recently made a planned gift in her estate to establish a scholarship at the College of Health Professions.

A child of divorced parents, Mathews received a full scholarship to Wayne State University in Detroit. "In order to be able to go to college, I needed that scholarship," she said. She hopes that her own gift can help aspiring health-care workers in a similar way, specifically students with a commitment to diversity and rural health.

"People look for meaning in life, and you have to think about what has made a difference for you and to you," Mathews said. "For me, this is what made a difference."