HeelPrints: Duo Uplifts Communities in Eastern North Carolina

Husband and wife Michael Hess and Betsy Sleath are dedicated to helping the people and communities of the region

Story by Ryan McDaniel | Published August 1, 2023

Three people standing outside, middle person in military uniform

Our HeelPrints series highlights the individuals and organizations making an impact in communities around the Tar Heel state.

When Betsy Sleath goes out on the road meeting with alumni, community pharmacists, health systems administrators, and university leaders, she is not alone. Her husband, Michael Hess, is right there with her. “I joke that he’s my driver and my bodyguard,” Betsy chuckles.

The pair has been getting to know the people and the communities of eastern North Carolina since 2021, when Betsy took on the role of Regional Associate Dean for Eastern North Carolina. Previously, Betsy had chaired the Division of Pharmaceutical Outcomes and Policy (DPOP). In her new role, she works to improve health care training and outcomes for eastern North Carolina in collaboration with four Area Health Education Centers (AHECs): Southern Regional AHEC, South East AHEC, Eastern AHEC, and Area L AHEC. “It’s the most meaningful job I’ve had,” Betsy says. “I get so much from this position because of the people I work with when we’re out there on the road.”

“I’m so impressed with Angela [Kashuba] for what she is doing to open up the east,” Michael notes. “And Betsy is doing some really good work out there – really completing things.”

Michael doesn’t exaggerate. Thanks to Betsy’s efforts, the School’s engagement with eastern North Carolina has broadened and deepened in the past two years. The School has established early assurance programs with UNC Pembroke, UNC Wilmington, and East Carolina University; created an Eastern Advisory Board to help prioritize work in the region; expanded the Rural Pharmacy Health Certificate Program to sites in the east; brought student and faculty expertise to the Conetoe Family Life Center’s Summer Camp; assisted with the iHeal camp at UNC Wilmington; and established a faculty position at the new UNC Health Sciences at South East AHEC.

“For part of my job, I help with recruiting,” Betsy explains. “I work with all our partner UNC-system schools, I work with community colleges, with high schools. We just traveled to talk with kids at all of the high schools in Columbus County.” Betsy connects alumni and fourth-year students in each AHEC with potential future pharmacy school students, giving them a chance to ask questions of those currently studying and practicing pharmacy and pharmaceutical sciences.

When asked what the grand vision for this work is, Betsy and Michael answer virtually the exact same way: “To attract pharmacy talent from the east and give them the best training available, so they return to the east to uplift their local communities.”

While Betsy is busy setting up partnerships, recruiting, and hearing stories of the people serving our state, Michael immerses himself in the local culture. He seeks out historical monuments, museums, parks, and small businesses to get a stronger understanding of the history and the people of each town they visit. “What I’ve found, and what I love about eastern NC, is the people are very friendly and kind,” Michael says. “And the pharmacists in these small towns are very successful but are humble and inclusive.”

Michael, like Betsy, is the kind of person who can strike up a conversation with anybody. He’s very extroverted and loves getting to know new people. “I enjoy meeting the alumni and Eastern NC advisory board members. They are truly dedicated to their communities,” he shares. “A few of my favorite people in eastern NC are Angie Mitchell and her husband in Ahoskie, Mary Hooks and her family in the Whiteville area, Thomas McDowell and his family in Rocky Mount, Reverend Joyner in Conetoe, Joe Pino, head of SEAHEC in Wilmington, and Justine Reel and her husband Robert at UNCW.”

Whenever Michael and Betsy visit a North Carolina college, Michael likes to buy a T-shirt from the student stores. One day he was browsing for a shirt when he observed a mother and her two daughters – new students – at the checkout counter. They had some coupons for purchases at the store and her mother was trying to work out how to pay for the shirts her daughters wanted. It was clear that this amount – maybe $20 or $30 – would be a financial hardship. Before Michael could step in, they worked out something with the cashier, but the event stuck with Michael.

“It just broke my heart, seeing that mother struggle,” he says. “I just wanted to help.”

Michael is no stranger to this kind of struggle. He grew up in the Pine Barrens of New Jersey, the middle child of seven. His family struggled financially. “We were impoverished,” Michael says. “My first bike was a girl’s bike from a cousin. My first pair of ice skates was girl’s ice skates from a cousin . . . I got used to just being happy when I got something.”

Now Michael is happy to give something after working hard all his life. Like many in his family, he joined the military; he served in the US Army as a nuclear and chemical warfare specialist from 1974 to 1994, retiring at the rank of Lieutenant Colonel. After serving, he worked as the Executive Director for the Texas Board of Professional Geoscientists until 2012. Now retired from his second career, Michael has gifted an entire retirement account to two causes close to his heart.

He is helping promote the recruitment, training, and retention of pharmacists in eastern North Carolina by supporting the Eastern NC Pharmacy Impact Fund at the UNC Eshelman School of Pharmacy Foundation. His hope is to inspire others to also give back in support of the east. Michael has generously offered to match dollar-for-dollar (up to $10,000) any donations made to this fund.

His second gift is for an ROTC scholarship at Texas Tech. “I went to undergrad on an ROTC scholarship,” Michael explains. “My son set up an ROTC scholarship at Texas Tech in honor of one of his comrades who died in Iraq in 2007. I wanted to give to that to help others access a good education.” In fact, so many members of Michael’s family serve or have served – his father, all of his siblings, his son, his step-daughter, and his cousin, Matthew, to whom Michael dedicates his two donations.

Michael is happy to see the North Carolina military connections and support as he and Betsy travel around the east. After all, North Carolina has the third largest military presence in the nation and is home to over 700,000 veterans. It presents a great opportunity to help those who have served our nation.

“The east has several military bases, so there are military and VA hospitals and clinics,” Betsy says. “And oftentimes the pharmacists there get to practice at the top of their game.” Betsy thinks the School could do more with these institutions, as well, including helping students use GI bill funding for pharmacy school and partnering with the military bases for research. “Our partnerships with UNCW and Pembroke are helping to benefit that population, as those schools have close ties with them, but we could be more direct.”

Judging by the connections Betsy has forged so far and the new initiatives she’s helped to launch, a stronger partnership with the military population in the east is not far off.

Ultimately, there is a massive amount of opportunity and work to improve health care for the people and communities of eastern North Carolina. It is far more than one person can accomplish on her own. But Betsy, with Michael by her side, is diligently creating connections, partnerships, and collaborations in the region to leverage the talent and resources of the many people passionate about their local communities. Together, this work will build a better North Carolina.