Community Health

Backus Hospital is committed to being active in and relevant to the communities we serve, and assuring that all individuals have a fair and just opportunity to achieve their full health potential. This is only possible if:

  • We listen to those we serve and witness directly the needs and inequities they face.
  • Remove barriers to access care, interact effectively with our workforce, and services.
  • Intervene to improve health outcomes and address social determinants of health.
  • Ensure care is respectful and culturally responsive.
  • Build trusting relationships and partnerships with shared values and goals.

By exploring and promoting new programs and partnerships we will address the health of our community in ways that are supportive and culturally relevant.

A-OK with HHC

A-Ok with HHC is a program designed to meet the underserved members of our community where they are.

A-ok consists of a blood pressure screening, along with an Hgb A1c test to screen for the possibility of diabetes. During testing, participants will be given education regarding high blood pressure and the importance of keeping their blood pressure in the “normal” range as well as information on A1c, what it means, and how to keep their number low. Participants will be given information about Primary Care Physicians (PCPs) as well as Urgent Care if needed. Every participant is given a brief health history questionnaire that includes questions such as: current medications, family history of cardiovascular disease or diabetes, if they themselves have ever been told they are a diabetic or have high blood pressure, and information about any recent Emergency Room visits.

According to the American Diabetes Association, in 2018, 34.2 million American’s had diabetes and of those, 7.3 million were undiagnosed. Many remain undiagnosed due to lack of regular medical care. HHC is looking to close that loop and meet our underserved community members in places like soup kitchens, mobile health fairs, mobile food pantries, homeless shelters, and brick and mortar food pantries. These free screenings will be provided in areas the participants are already utilizing and are comfortable with. The goal will be to provide testing that can help inform participants on their current health status and ultimately connect them to resources such as primary care if needed.

On the road with Neighboorhood Health

Students from the University of St. Joseph in West Harford offered nutritional advice during the health fair.

Melvin Twitty gets his blood pressure checked by Roslyn Williams, a patient care technician for Hartford HealthCare Neighborhood Health, during a health fair Monday in Norwich.

Hartford HealthCare's Neighborhood Health program brought its services to the Norwich AHEPA 110 Senior Apartments Monday, Jan. 31, for a health fair to benefit residents of the apartments.

 A number of screenings including blood pressure were offered and representatives from rehab services and vaccines were in attendance as well. Students from the University of St. Joseph in West Hartford also partnered with HHC and provided nutritional advice to the residents.

Blender Bike

What started as an idea for a fun way to bring healthy, nutritious information to communities in eastern Connecticut came to fruition Wednesday, June 1, when the Hartford HealthCare East Region Community Health team brought their inaugural "blender bike" to the Elisha Brook Senior Living complex in Franklin.

Working with a team of enthusiastic Norwich Tech students, juniors Will Gifford, David Clang and Hunter Frechette, the Community Health team — under the direction of East Region Manager Joe Zuzel, Community Health nurse Michele Brezniak, BSN, RN, and Backus Community Dietitian Shannon Haynes — spun the idea for the bike and the students put the pedal to the metal and came up with a modified exercise bike complete with a working blender and new paint job.

Gen Schies, Backus Development program manager, was able to provide needed funding for extra parts and other necessities.

The bike, which will hit the road this summer and be used at other Community Health events, was demonstrated by East Region Vice President of Operations Matt Kaufman who brought along an extra pair of sneakers for the event. And dietitian Shannon Haynes spoke about all of the healthy options for making smoothies and hummus using plenty of natural ingredients low in carbs as she stuffed the blender with fruit, yogurt and other treats.

Several residents for Elisha Brook were on hand for the demonstration and although they declined to ride the bike they did benefit from some well-blended, nutritious snacks courtesy of Mr. Kaufman's foot power and the Norwich Tech student's mechanical skills.

Healthy Choices Food Boxes

Community Health and Backus Nutrition departments are partnering with the Pawcatuck Neighborhood Center Emergency Food Pantry to create disease-specific food boxes (cardiac, diabetes and dialysis).

Dieticians from Windham and Backus train volunteers at the food pantry in how to create food boxes and label food pantry for health conditions.

All participants receive diet “tip cards” that list optimal foods for their health condition and health-related numbers. HHC provides health education, recipes as well as upcoming events for distribution to PNC patrons.

Diet Tip Cards:
Renal / Dialysis
Heart Healthy

HHC partners with Community Food Bank to ensure healthy diets for chronic conditions

When Pawcatuck Neighborhood Center Executive Director Susan Sedensky sat down a few months ago with Joseph Zuzel, the new manager of community health for Hartford HealthCare’s East Region, it was a true meeting of the minds.

“It was amazing,” she recalled. “Joe was talking about his vision, and I was talking about my vision, and we learned we had the same vision! We both want to educate community food pantry clients on healthy food choices. I have been wanting to do this forever, to educate people about their food.”

Together they created a program unique to the East Region — a Backus Hospital-based registered dietician, Katie Field, held two information sessions at the PNC in July and August to teach first staff and then volunteers about food choices specific to several health conditions, including kidney disease, heart disease and diabetes. HHC is also providing laminated handouts to help guide staff and volunteers as they pack food boxes for distribution, and additional flyers to provide to pantry clients.

“My goal with community health in the East Region is to create collaborations and partnerships that have a long term positive effect on the health of residents across the region,” Zuzel said. “By teaming up with the PNC to help provide people with the best foods for their specific health and dietary needs, we are truly embedding ourselves in the wellbeing of the community.”

In 2020, the PNC food pantry served 1,500 families in the greater Stonington area, an increase of about 200 families that Sedensky attributes to the economic hardships brought on by COVID.  In addition, every Friday it sends home “Weekend BackPacks” with enough food for two days, with about 300 children. The food pantry is open five days a week, utilizing curbside pickup. In-person “shopping” was halted by the pandemic. Each family typically takes home 4-5 shopping bags/boxes a week, filled with staples, canned goods, fresh vegetables from the PNC community garden, meats and dairy.

“Being able to create food boxes for clients who have specific health issues will be incredible,” Sedensky said. “We often hear from clients that they have a new diagnosis, and it can be overwhelming to them. This is an easy way for us to help them.”

Field provided training on healthy diets for patients who have heart disease, kidney disease, and diabetes. She also shared strategies for getting people to try new foods that will be better for their health.

“Don’t present it as, ‘You can’t have this …’,” she counseled. “Instead, present it as ‘Here’s everything you can have, and let’s try and limit these things.’ We want to always focus on fresh or frozen versus processed or canned. They might not be used to that, so take it slow.

Backus provides nutrition training for Norwich food pantry staff

Backus Hospital registered dietitian Shannon Haynes spent time at the St. Vincent de Paul community food pantry last week to provide insight to staff and volunteers about food and nutrition.

The pantry, which serves 500 families a week, is working to launch a program in which patrons with specific health issues can receive the healthiest items possible. The conditions include kidney disease, heart disease and diabetes. Hartford HealthCare will also provide handouts to help guide staff and volunteers as they pack food boxes for distribution, and additional flyers to provide to pantry clients.

Food pantry manager Brian Burke said the facility has about 2,000 families in the database, and serves about 500 each week. The pantry is open Monday, Wednesday and Saturday and a family is allowed to come once a week. In addition to pantry staples, canned and boxed goods, fresh vegetables and meats are provided.

Burke said when they order supplies from Connecticut Food Share he utilizes their system of rating foods as Green (healthy), Yellow (fairly healthy), Red (not so healthy). Foods that are low in salt, fat or sugar get a green rating.

He welcomed the opportunity to learn more about nutrition and how foods interact with the body in order to make patrons make the healthiest choices possible. Haynes and the pantry staff literally went through the shelves pulling out boxes and reviewing the labels. Haynes noted that on a box of macaroni and cheese, for example, one serving would equal two-thirds of the daily recommendation for sodium. “And those serving sizes aren’t usually followed,” she said.

Haynes suggested creating a designated “low sodium” section of the pantry that included all items that were within standard nutritional guidelines to make it easier for clients perusing the shelves.

Burke and others also talked about the challenges of providing healthy food for people who have lots of challenges, ranging from outright homelessness to living somewhere like a motel that only has a microwave and small refrigerator. Making sure there are items they can either eat cold or with minimal equipment is important.

St. Vincent de Paul Executive Director Jillian Corbin wondered if offering samples to people of new items might help them make healthier choices. Cooking up some whole grain or vegetable-based pasta and offering tastes might get people over the hurdle of trying something new, she said. Whole grain pastas are better for people living with diabetes, Haynes explained because eating too many carbs can cause inflammation, weight gain, and higher blood sugars—especially in patients with diabetes.

Healthy Cooking

Healthy Cooking class for cardiology patients in Mystic during National Heart Month.

Barbara Kil had never tasted sunflower seeds. “Aren’t they for the birds?” she asked Backus Hospital Executive Chef Scott Mickleson.

Mickleson was in the process of adding sunflower seeds to his overnight oats during a Healthy Cooking class at Coogan Farm in Mystic. He paused and shook out a few seeds into Barbara’s palm. “Try them,” he said. “They are really good, and good for you.”

Kil and her husband Jerry along with Jim Seaton were all in attendance at the East Region’s first free healthy cooking class for area cardiology patients. The Kils see Dr. Adam Niedelman and Seaton is a patient of Dr. Michael Fucci’s. The class was organized by the East Region Community Health department and utilizes the cooking expertise of Mickleson with the nutritional expertise of a staff registered dietitian. For these classes, registered dietitian Alexis Irvine attends.

The program is much more than a simple cooking class. Dietitians also join, and provide information on nutrition (both general and diagnosis-specific), as well as tips for efficient and cost-effective grocery shopping, why it’s better to eat at home than grab takeout, why family mealtimes are important, and even what types of tools are needed to be able to make home-cooked meals.

In November, a free Healthy Cooking program was launched in partnership with CLiCK (Commercially Licensed Co-Operative Kitchen) in Windham. George Zern, Director of Food and Nutrition Services at Windham Hospital, taught four classes to people diagnosed with diabetes, providing healthy breakfast, lunch, dinner and snack menus, recipes and techniques.

Barbara said they signed up for the class after seeing a flier in Niedelman’s office. “We need to be doing something to eat more healthily,” she said. “We have terrible eating habits.” Seaton said he was there because since his wife passed away two years ago, he has not done a good job of cooking good meals for himself.

While Mickleson demonstrated preparing overnight oats and avocado toast with hard boiled eggs, Irvine explained the nutritional value of what was being prepared - whole grains and soluble fiber is good for managing cholesterol, for example, and healthy fats like avocados versus unhealthy fats found in processed foods. She reviewed food packaging labels and gave the students tips for smart grocery shopping.

Upcoming classes will include salmon on a citrus couscous salad and pork tenderloin with pumpkin, bitter green salad and mushroom-lentil salad, Mickleson said.

The three attendees sampled both dishes as well. “I’ve never had avocado toast, either,” Barbara said. “I would definitely make that.”

RX for Health Program

Hartford HealthCare “Rx for Health” program has been in the Backus region since 2010 and in Windham since 2021.

The goal of the program is to provide fresh fruits and vegetables to low-income families. Local pediatricians identify low-income families with children up to age 18 who are at risk for diet-related health conditions and are not able to afford fresh fruits and vegetables.

Families are supplied with $126.00 worth of vouchers that can be exchanged for fruits and vegetables at local farmers markets and grocery stores. Nutrition education, as well as recipes, are supplied for families to encourage participation.

Rx for Health Program Expands to Windham

by Elissa Bass

The Rx for Health program, which celebrated its 10th anniversary at Backus Hospital last year, will expand to Windham this summer.

In addition, the program has been streamlined, making it easier for families to utilize it.

Rx for Health provides nutritionally at-risk families with “prescriptions” for fresh produce that come from their doctor or other healthcare provider. In the Norwich area, the vouchers can be redeemed for fresh fruits and vegetables at the weekly Farmers Market at Howard T. Brown Memorial Park.

In Windham, the program will be available at the Willimantic Food Co-op (91 Valley St., Willimantic), the Willimantic Farmers Market (Saturdays, 8 am to noon, 28 Bridge St., Willimantic) and the Windham Hospital Farmstand (Wednesdays, 3-6 p.m., 132 Mansfield Ave., Willimantic).

Each “prescription” is worth $126.

Windham Hospital has partnered with Generations Family Health Center in Willimantic to promote the program and recruit families to use it. Casey Squier, engagement services manager for Generations, said 20 families will be identified by the organization's staff pediatricians to receive the vouchers.

“We are always looking for creative ways to help our patients be more healthy and make better life choices,” Squier said. “Our care coordinators will work with the families to overcome any barriers there may be — cultural, financial, logistical — to get them to these markets to use the vouchers in the best way.”

The expansion into Windham was made possible by a donation to the program by the Windham Hospital Foundation.

“The Windham Hospital Foundation is pleased to provide funding to pilot a Rx for Health program in the greater Willimantic community in order for families with children to receive adequate amounts of fresh fruits and vegetables on a daily basis,” said Shawn J. Maynard, executive director of the Foundation. “The board of trustees of the Foundation looks for ways to provide funding for programs and services for the patients the Hospital serves, whether it be in a hospital setting or in the community.”

Joseph Zuzel, manager of Community Health for Hartford HealthCare’s East Region, said he was pleased that he could bring together the hospital’s Foundation and a community partner to bring the Rx for Health program to the Willimantic area.

“Being able to bring together these organizations to improve the health of the community is what we are all about,” he said.

Funded by the Backus Hospital Development Office, Rx for Health started as an initiative for the Backus Hospital Healthy Community Campaign and has been a hugely successful program serving the Backus Community since its pilot in 2011. 

In addition to receiving the fresh foods, registered dietitians provide the families with nutrition counseling and education materials that cover an array of wellness topics including:

  • How to stay active as a family
  • Tips for being healthy for busy families
  • Healthy snack ideas for children and toddlers
  • Healthy recipes utilizing the many fruits and vegetables in-season

A survey of program participants in 2019 showed that tight finances affect how families buy food, including food choices.

Of the 55 people who completed the survey, 27 percent felt as though they were not able to make healthy choices for their family. Of those, 11 stated it was because of money. The surveys also revealed that within the past 12 months, 53 percent of families were worried they would run out of food before they had money to buy more; 31 percent did run out of food and didn’t have money to buy more.

Also, 75 percent said that before their participation in Rx for Health, their children received a fruit or vegetable every day. At the end of the 2019 program, 100 percent of the families said their children were able to receive fruits and vegetables every day.

Additional Resources

Explore our community partners and community resources on our platform Connections That Matter. Hartford HealthCare makes it easier to make Connections That Matter to all kinds of free or reduced-cost services. Just enter your Zip Code to find help and support near you — like medical care, food, clothing, job training, and lots more!

Safe Kids Worldwide
East Region Community Health and Backus Hospital Trauma department co-chair the east regional chapter of Safe Kids worldwide for the state of Connecticut.

Community Health Needs Assessment
The Community Health Needs Assessment is a systematic, data-driven approach to determining the health status, behaviors and needs of residents in Hartford HealthCare’s service areas.


Backus Hospital

Community Health Contacts

Joseph Zuzel
Director, Community Health East Region

Michele Brezniak
RN, Community Health East Region

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