After working for years to expand health care options for the poor, gynecologist Lawrence Nelson says he's reached this conclusion: "The community really needs to pull together to provide these services. Government can only do so much."

Nelson is president of Rachel's Well, a new nonprofit group aimed at providing basic screening tests to women in Fairfax County. "What we're specifically trying to do," he said, "is identify women who don't really know they need to have a Pap smear or have so many barriers that they don't get in" for this cervical cancer test or for a breast exam. The group conducted its first event in May; a second is planned for September.

The Rachel's Well idea relies on a community organization -- for the first event, it was St. Matthew's United Methodist Church in Annandale -- to recruit patients.

Nelson said the women's pre-established connection with the church was key to the event's success. "It's outreach education," he said, "and if it's done with a community partner that they have a good link with and trust already, then that will get them in."

Gail Jackson, a member of St. Matthew's, said 30 women already enrolled in the church's program that teaches English as a second language showed interest in the screening and met the requirements of being uninsured and having gone without the health tests for at least five years. Some had never received these tests, she said.

The screening was held in Springfield, at the Medical Education Campus (MEC) of Northern Virginia Community College, whose officials decided to also offer dental exams for anyone who arrived that evening.

"It's win-win for everyone involved," said Charlene Connolly, MEC's provost. "Some women didn't drive [themselves] and whoever drove them then got [offered dental] screening." Jackson said several children who accompanied their mothers "were able to go and have their teeth cleaned while they were waiting."

The results of the first cancer screenings proved the importance of these tests: "We had one woman in her late twenties that had an abnormal cytology," Connolly said, "and she was referred" to a hospital for further tests.

Nelson -- his day job is gynecologic research at the National Institutes of Health -- hopes to see the partnership model replicated around the country.

"We don't want to get people thinking we're going to do 10,000 of these in the next month," Nelson said, "but we are interested in hearing from other people who want to run a program like this, and it's amazing what existing resources are out there that you can pull together when you network like this." More information about Rachel's Well can be found by calling 703-644-9084 or by going to

-- Tom Graham

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