A Dedication to Eastern North Carolina

Tracey Simmons-Kornegay, PharmD ’02, always knew she wanted to serve the health-care needs of her hometown

Story by Zach Read | Published May 2, 2023

Headshot of Tracey Simmons-Kornegay

For Tracey Simmons-Kornegay rural eastern North Carolina has always been home. Raised in Duplin County, she always planned to remain in her hometown. As she made her way through East Duplin High School, she knew her path to doing so wouldn’t be easy.

“We only had two AP classes in the 1990s: World History and English,” recalls Tracey, who lives in her hometown of Beulaville today, two acres away from the house she grew up in, and next door to her mom. “Our access to educational and career opportunities was limited.”

As a high school student, Tracey was determined to find a career that would fulfill her and make use of her talents.

“I was good at math and science and wanted to help people,” Tracey explains. “I was fortunate that I had some family friends who were pharmacists. I thought, ‘Hey, I really like to help people, and this looks like a good profession for women. So, I decided that’s what I want to do.’”

A self-described “nerd” when it comes to studying, Tracey never felt academically gifted. She worked hard in the classroom and filled her time with extracurricular activities. She knew these efforts did not guarantee that she’d get into college. Many of her peers wouldn’t be able to attend college, and even fewer from communities like hers would become pharmacists.

“Duplin County was a healthcare desert at the time,” Tracey says, “and it still is today.”

Tracey created a backup plan: she was good at math and science and grew up playing sports, so she thought she could stay in the area and teach and coach. Then news came that she was accepted to study pharmacy at the University of North Carolina as well as Campbell University, among other college acceptances.

“I was reminded that I bleed blue,” says Tracey, laughing. “My family loves Carolina, we have always loved Carolina, and we bleed blue. My decision was easy once I remembered that.”

Tracey began her pre-pharmacy track at Carolina in fall 1996, but her transition to Carolina wasn’t always smooth. Her main interest in pharmacy was to support the healthcare needs in the rural community she grew up in. In her early classes, she didn’t see the connection between what she was studying and what she wanted to do. She wondered what her coursework had to do with rural medicine.

“I thought, ‘How does this relate to me putting pills in a bottle, providing patient counseling, and sending the patient out the door to go home and get better?’” Tracy recalls. “If I didn’t know what the end result was going to be, I don’t know that I would have finished. I might have given up.”

Tracey persisted. She remembers creating flash cards and reviewing them while walking to class, riding the bus, and waiting to be seated for dinner when her parents came to Chapel Hill to take her out. In 1998, she entered the PharmD program at the School of Pharmacy; she graduated with her PharmD in 2002.

After receiving her PharmD, Tracey completed a community practice residency with Area L AHEC in Rocky Mount, one of nine centers in the NC AHEC Program. During the residency, she gained experience in long-term care, ambulatory care, and retail pharmacy. After residency, she worked as a retail pharmacist, taught a pharmacy technician course at a local community college, and performed chart reviews for Community Care of North Carolina, which led to a role as one of the network pharmacists at Pitt County Memorial Hospital, now ECU Health Medical Center. Now she serves as Duplin County Health Director, a position she has held for nearly five years.

Challenges similar to those she saw while growing up in Duplin County still exist today, as well as new ones.

“Lack of healthcare providers, whether primary care providers, dentists, behavioral health, mental health services,” Tracey says. “For at least 25 percent of our population, English is not their primary language, so we have challenges there and we also have challenges in having acceptable access to care because they don’t qualify for some things others may qualify for.”

In 2022, Tracey was awarded the North Carolina Pharmacy Associations’ Excellence in Innovation Award, which is presented to a pharmacist in each state demonstrating significant innovation, which results in improved patient care, in their respective pharmacy practice. Tracey received the award for her role in involving individuals from various healthcare disciplines in administering COVID-19 vaccines during the vaccine rollout in 2021.

Although Tracey is honored by the award, she doesn’t think she deserves the attention.

“I’m a little uncomfortable with it because I feel like I was just doing my job,” she says. “I got anyone I could get my hands on that was covered under the Public Readiness and Emergency Preparedness Act to give immunizations.”

Tracey credits her successful career in rural medicine to the multidisciplinary training she received at the School of Pharmacy and in the communities and organizations in which she has served. She also believes her approach to people has helped her along the way.

“I tell my daughter there are two things that will make you successful no matter how dumb, how smart, how rich or how poor you are, and that is treating people the way you want to be treated, and not being willing to do something that you would ask someone else to do,” she says. “Those two things have gotten me to where I am today, along with my degree.”

Carolina remains a special place for Tracey. An avid Tar Heel fan, she and her family come back to campus a few times a year for games. When she visits, she’s filled with pride for the journey that brought her to Chapel Hill and back home again.

“To think that the average kid from a rural county got into Carolina, and look where she is today,” Tracey says. “It doesn’t matter what you make on a standardized test, it just matters the effort you’re going to put into it.”