Answering the call: Betty Compton, Nurse Practitioner

by Courtney Mitchell

It was Dr. Glenn Pickard of the UNC School of Medicine, an early champion of the nurse practitioner program, and future classmate Margaret Wilkman who first called on Betty Compton.

But long before they sat at her kitchen table in the rural Cedar Grove community of Orange County, her neighbors had called on her with the kinds of questions you’d bring to your doctor. Compton was home with a new baby, and she offered nursing advice in her front yard and from her home phone, something that she says was a true partnership between her and her community.

“I was quite familiar with getting that phone call that says ‘My little boy has a fever and he seems not well. Can I drive by your house?’ People needed guidance about what really needed to be seen, and what to say to doctors to make sure they got what they needed,” says Compton.

Compton was trained at the Watts School of Nursing in Durham, where she became head nurse, and then worked in public health at the Orange County Health Department. Her community was deeply affected by a lack of access to care. They were 30 miles from UNC, Burlington, Roxboro and Danville, VA. In any direction you looked, there wasn’t a single health care system nearby. The closest facility had been the Prospect Hill Clinic, but it had stood empty for years.

With her neighbors, she was answering the call to provide them with more. Pickard asked her to come to UNC and make that official by becoming a nurse practitioner.

“They said it would be an opportunity to expand the skills and responsibilities that nurses could have in taking care of patients at a more advanced level, and I thought that was great. This was my opportunity to not stay in the background and get more credentials to provide care at a new level.”

In July 1971, after graduation, Wilkman and Compton opened the doors to the Prospect Hill Clinic, something made possible by UNC and the Office of Economic Opportunity. The community had waiting so long for medical care, and on that day, they were waiting in line.

“Margaret and I looked at each other, and our eyes were so big. We thought, ‘What have we gotten ourselves into?’ The first patient I saw was a gentleman with diabetes who hadn’t seen a doctor in five years. There were big challenges that day, and we were trying to find out what we needed. Glenn was with us that day and would jump in if we needed him to.”

Another worry that first day was that the patient wouldn’t accept their expanded roles as nurse practitioners.

“We thought they’d say, ‘Well, if can’t see a doctor I’m going home. But, no. They signed up and were just ready to tell you what was going on.”

Though the pushback didn’t come from patients, Compton says not all health care professionals were welcoming.

“There were some local pharmacists who met us with unease and not as new providers on the scene to interact with professionally. It was a bit challenging for them to let us in.”

Ten years later, Compton was ready to do more, once again observing a need in her community close to home. As her children grew and her house filled with teenagers, she’d developed an interest in treating adolescents, talking to them as more than children and listening to their new health concerns as they grew up.

UNC called on her once again. The dean of the medical school offered her a position in pediatrics to help develop their adolescent medicine program and train the pediatric residents.

“He asked what it would take to get me over there to the School of Medicine,” she says. “Soon, I joined their faculty.”

Compton says that move was a gift that kept on giving. She stayed until 2005, helping to start a child medical clinic for sexual abuse, training others in sexual assault exams for adolescents, speaking up for them in court and securing funding for at-risk adolescents in the Orange County School System that reduced negative outcomes for teenagers.

“I remember long ago worrying in the nurse practitioner classroom that I’d be seen as a dummy. I had a diploma, so I must have had basic skills. But, I’d had great training, and I was well-prepared. I was promoted to full professor at the medical school before I retired.”

She credits part of that confidence to her classmates, particularly her partner at Prospect Hill, Margaret Wilkman.

“I learned so much from her, and together, we did so much,” she says. “I will always treasure walking beside her.”