AUBURN — Nurse Cindy Scribner was hours from going on vacation when she learned St. Mary’s Regional Medical Center was closing the weight management center where she worked.
She was going to lose her job, and that was bad enough. But hundreds of patients were losing the support they relied on. Many considered the center to be home, the staff and other patients like family.
So during her two and a half week vacation, Scribner came to a decision. She would look into starting her own weight management center.
Well, she would, she resolved, if she could convince at least two co-workers to join her. And who knew how difficult that might be?
“I went to work that day I came back and there were two of them there and I asked them. They both said yes,” Scribner said. “And I’m like, ‘Oh, my god.”’
Three months later, Scribner opened the NorthStar Wellness Group, an Auburn weight management center that — like the shuttered St. Mary’s program — creates a customized weight loss and wellness plan for each patient.
Of the 10 people who worked at the former St. Mary’s program, five followed Scribner to the start-up.
“It felt like someone died (when the St. Mary’s center closed). It was just devastating,” said Renee Beauparlant, who helped build the St. Mary’s program and joined Scribner at NorthStar. “This is just wonderful.”
There have been some growing pains. Patient records are hard to get. While a few insurance agencies have approved NorthStar’s services, a handful of others haven’t agreed to pay for them.
And ironically, for a place that’s all about helping people lose weight, the House of Bacon restaurant is just downstairs.
“They should know they will smell bacon,” Scribner joked, referring to new clients who come to NorthStar’s third-floor office suite at the corner of Main and Court streets.
But Scribner sees any challenge as temporary. She has a goal: Help as many people as the St. Mary’s program did.
“This place has just developed my enthusiasm even more,” she said. “It feels like it’s just going to all come together.”
‘THE RIGHT FIT’
St. Mary’s told patients and employees in early summer that it was ending the program that was part of the Integrative Medicine & Weight Management practice on Main Street in Lewiston. The program, unique to the area, worked by creating individual patient plans that could include medical supervision, nutrition, behavioral changes, exercise, medication and support groups.
At the time, Chief Medical Officer Christopher Bowe told the Sun Journal in an email: “We have been trying to make this program successful and sustainable for some time. In the end, reviewing the program at the time of the lead physicians’ departure, we concluded that our current model was unfortunately not sustainable.”
St. Mary’s spokesman Jason Gould said at the time he did not know how many patients or staff members would be affected by the closure, but he estimated that it would be “a small number.”
But those familiar with the program disagreed. They said the weight management center had about a dozen employees and served 300 to 500 patients.
Within days, a number of those patients had reached out to the Sun Journal to tell their stories of success with the program and to lament its loss.
A small group of patients and employees also gathered privately to talk about the closure and what they could do to stop it. Other patients said they wrote letters or emails to hospital officials lambasting the decision and begging them to reconsider. Some took their cause online with a Facebook page called Save St. Mary’s Weight Management.
St. Mary’s officials would not be swayed. The program was set to end Aug 25.
Scribner, 58, had a decision to make. She could apply for a new job within St. Mary’s. She could leave the hospital system entirely for another job elsewhere. Or she could start her own program.
It was not, she said, a hard decision.
Scribner had worked in hospitals all of her career, mostly in trauma and critical care. She’d joined the weight management program three years ago and fell in love with the patients and the work.
“I knew in my gut, in my heart, this was the right fit,” she said.
During her time there, Scribner had started a lifestyle coaching business on the side — NorthStar Coaching — but it was small, very part time and had no office. If she wanted to replicate the St. Mary’s program, she would need, at the very least, staff and a location.
Scribner looked at about a dozen sites in Lewiston-Auburn. She found what she needed at 79 Main St. in Auburn.
True, House of Bacon scents wafted up to the office space, which wasn’t ideal. But the St. Mary’s center was originally in Lisbon Falls between Dunkin’ Donuts, Food City and Sam’s Italian Foods. Patients had to navigate food triggers every day.
“You’re going to be in life. You’re out in the real world,” said Beauparlant, who was program coordinator for the St. Mary’s center and serves the same function at NorthStar.
With no financial backers, Scribner paid for everything herself and it was stressful. She had what she called “a few minor come-to-Jesus moments” and, just before signing the lease, one major one.
“I felt sick. I didn’t know if I could do it. I worried about maintaining my enthusiasm, because I knew it would take a lot. Just all the things that you worry about when you’re starting, knowing what you’re walking into,” she said. “I said I’m going to sleep on it one more night and decide. Then I didn’t sleep at all.”
The next morning, her anxiety disappeared.
“I can’t see myself doing anything else,” Scribner said. “And I won’t be happy with myself if I do something else. So, whatever it takes.”
She signed the lease.
‘PEOPLE CARE HERE’
The Auburn space provides offices, two large rooms for support groups, classes and exercise programs and smaller rooms for counseling sessions and appointments with specialists. NorthStar offers about 15 groups per week, including support groups and classes.
Almost all employees are part time and work at NorthStar on the side. That’s allowed the new center to get experienced people — dietitians, a licensed clinical social worker, a wellness coach, a fitness specialist — without a massive payroll.
More than 50 patients have joined NorthStar since it opened its doors in September. It’s adding about five a week.
Almost all of them were St. Mary’s patients.
“It’s been a good experience. It’s been what I need. It fills a void for me,” said Sherry Turmel, 62, of Lewiston, who joined the St. Mary’s program a couple of years ago after dealing with some medical issues and turned to NorthStar when it opened. “People care here.”
But while Scribner has tried to replicate much of what made the St. Mary’s program unique — personalized weight-loss plans, strong support groups that feel like family, counseling, nutritional guidance, mindfulness and meditation — there are differences.
St. Mary’s had doctors on site, NorthStar does not. It uses off-site doctors, including those who worked at the St. Mary’s center, to consult when necessary.
St. Mary’s kept full patient medical records, but those records have been difficult for NorthStar to get. Files haven’t been transferred despite requests, Beauparlant said, and it’s an issue the center is working on.
St. Mary’s accepted all major insurance plans, but NorthStar currently accepts only Medicare, Community Health Options and Harvard Pilgrim plans. It expects to have an agreement with Aetna soon and it is working on payment agreements with Cigna, Anthem and MaineCare.
Right now, a number of patients pay out of pocket, sometimes because their insurance isn’t accepted, sometimes because their insurance co-pays are higher than NorthStar’s charges. A counseling session costs $50 per half-hour. Groups cost $25 each. Exercise classes and other activities cost $30 for six.
Just a month old, NorthStar already has plans for growth. Scribner hopes to offer expert speakers on healthy lifestyle topics for free or by donation. She would like to get a doctor on staff when NorthStar is busy enough.
“I have one picked out,” she said.
She believes NorthStar can one day be as busy as the St. Mary’s program was, even if that takes a couple of years.
“My goal was to offer 20 groups,” she said. “Now we want to fill those groups.”
Becky Walker, a fitness specialist at NorthStar Wellness Group in Auburn, helps Sarah Abacha with correct positioning during an exercise. (Andree Kehn/Sun Journal)
Nurse Cindy Scribner opened the NorthStar Wellness Group in Auburn after St. Mary’s shut down its weight management program. (Andree Kehn/Sun Journal)
Becky Walker, a fitness specialist at NorthStar Wellness Group in Auburn, works with clients to create a specialized fitness program. (Andree Kehn/Sun Journal)
Sarah Abacha and Becky Walker warm up before a fitness class at NorthStar Wellness Group in Auburn. (Andree Kehn/Sun Journal)