CLEVELAND, Ohio – Maggie Tolbert grew up in a small town in Alabama, where Jim Crow laws still applied. Blacks were not allowed to eat in the lunch counter at the local drug store, and the local hospital was separated.
These experiences led to her determination to fight for equality in healthcare and to break down barriers to care during her career as a registered nurse.
“I want to make sure that no matter what your share of life is, no matter how much money you have, you have access to equal, high-quality behavioral health care services,” said Tolbert, 64.
Tolbert is the winner of the Nurse Innovator Award for cleveland.comBest nurses for their commitment to innovation.
Tolbert is the assistant chief clinical officer of the Cuyahoga County Board of Alcohol, Drug Addiction and Mental Health Services, which funds and monitors public mental health services, addiction treatment, and recovery for county residents.
Honored for her work as Project Manager for Cuyahoga County Conversion Center, A 50-bed facility that provides a place for people with symptoms of mental illness and/or addiction to receive treatment instead of going to prison. Treatment costs are covered by Medicaid or The Adams board.
While the conversion center was in the planning stages, Tolbert was a key figure in bringing together a broad coalition that included law enforcement, mental health advocacy groups, ministers, and other community leaders to discuss the type of facility required and develop its standards.
“We wanted to make sure that we got support and that it would meet the needs of the community,” she said.
ADAMHS Board of Directors appointed Oriana House, Which provides behavioral health services and community corrections, to operate a referral center.
“Maggie’s clinical skills were critical to the development of the Cuyahoga County Transformation Center standards,” said Mike Randell, executive vice president of operations at Oriana House, in an email. “Her knowledge of behavioral health practices and commitment to helping individuals with mental health issues helped us develop services that were essential to obtain Transfer Center and operate it.”
Although she hasn’t worked directly with patients for years, she still gets calls from former patients’ family members asking for her advice. She uses her knowledge of available resources to identify places that can help, even if the person does not have insurance.
Scott S. Oseki, CEO of the ADAMHS Cuyahoga County Board of Directors, said in an email.
“She is reliable, very knowledgeable and doesn’t let anything get in the way of her getting her work done. I am proud of her for so many things, especially her work creating and supervising the Cuyahoga County Transformation Center. Maggie deserves this award and our community is better because of her dedication.”
Tolbert also worked to ensure that the services of the ADAMHS Board of Directors were equally available on the West and East Side.
“It doesn’t matter who you are,” said Tolbert, who lives in Cleveland Heights. “You will continue to get service. And you don’t have to go 50 miles across the bridge to get that service.”
Solve problems and remove barriers
Tolbert said that behavioral health is often misunderstood. They tell patients and families that the patient has a brain disease, and that they are not responsible.
But that doesn’t mean you can’t do anything (to help you) function as best you can,” said Tolbert, who also worked as a psychiatric nurse at university hospitals. “Behavioral health nurses teach people how to perform at the highest level of performance they can do.”
Tolbert started on the ADAMHS board as a specialist clinical nurse 21 years ago. She enjoys solving problems at her job.
“I love removing barriers, because I always see that this (patient) could be one of my family,” she said. “How do I want my family to be treated? Sometimes with healthcare, it can be difficult if you don’t get to the right person.”
In a previous position as a behavioral health nurse with The Ohio Visiting Nurses Association, She visited patients who had been discharged from the hospital but still had depression or hallucinations. She helped with medications and coordinating other medical care.
Tolbert recalls visiting an elderly black woman to assess whether she was depressed. The woman and her house were clean. When Tolbert asked if she had ever been sexually assaulted, the woman began to cry.
“She said it was the first time anyone had asked her about it,” Tolbert said. “I thought at her age, at the time, that those were things she didn’t talk about.” Tolbert urged the woman to address the early trauma that was contributing to her depression.
Tolbert plans to remain on the ADAMHS board until retirement.
“I really think God will tell me when it’s time to move on,” Tolbert said. “I don’t believe in staying forever.”