The waiting room of Teen Health Connection off Randolph Road is different from most doctors' offices.
Pictures of adolescents cover the walls. The magazines are teen-focused, and there are no babies crying or patients with canes. Three high school students chat casually about the show on TV. When a doctor walks in, her scrubs do not have SpongeBob cartoons on them.
That atmosphere is part of the reason THC is so important to the Charlotte community, and why Dr. Preeti Matkins said she is excited to become the newest medical director of the facility. Matkins takes over Monday.
Matkins, a Charlotte native and resident of the Myers Park area, has been involved with Teen Health Connection since 1995, three years after the program began. Matkins previously split her time between child abuse, pediatric medicine and other areas offered by Levine Children's Hospital.
Now she will concentrate solely on adolescents.
"Teens make me happy," Matkins said. "It was time to decide this is what I wanted to do."
THC was started when a group of concerned citizens came together and pointed out the lack of somewhere for teens to go and get medical and mental health attention, especially without insurance. The community coalition, which included Carolina's Medical Center, Presbyterian Hospital, the Junior League, the Mecklenburg Medical Alliance and others, opened THC on Elizabeth Avenue for young people ages 11-22.
In 1997, the board realized they could not sustain the program without an affiliate. They chose to join Carolinas Medical Center because of its mission to serve the indigent population.
THC offers a sliding-scale fee.
"This really helps those who don't qualify for Medicaid but can't afford health insurance: the working poor," said Libby Safrit, executive director of THC.
THC also is a teaching site for Levine Children's Hospital. During the three-year residency for pediatricians, all residents are required to do a rotation there.
Apart from addressing standard medical needs, THC also offers five full-time mental health clinicians and the Center for Disordered Eating. Each patient seen, whether for a broken arm or a flu shot, is scheduled for a 45-minute visit. This enables the physicians to get to know the patients going through a lot of emotional and physical changes.
According to Safrit, resident physicians will ask every patient casual questions to learn about their lives. They use the acronym HEADS to delve into topics under the following categories: home, education, activities, drugs, sexuality/suicide/safety/spirituality.
If a conversation reveals issues of concern, there is a mental health clinician on hand to come in and talk immediately.
"That's what I used to do: Mental health on roller skates," said Safrit.
A follow-up mental health appointment also can be scheduled immediately.
"Six weeks later is too late for a kid who is freaking out about going to college or about a pregnancy," said Safrit.
When creating the partnership with CMC, Teen Health Connection kept its charitable status, meaning it still has a board of directors that oversees education advocacy outreach and serves as an advisory board for clinical services. The board also spearheads fundraising activities; they get funding from United Way.
"We can buy back our time from the hospital to allow for 45-minute patient visits," Safrit said. "It also allows us to apply for grants, like the one from Women's Impact Fund, so we can do things like a girls mentoring group."
When the Mecklenburg Council for Pregnancy Prevention closed six years ago, THC was asked to fill the gap. GEMS (Girls Educated and Motivated for Success) was started under THC's health educator and has met every week for nearly five years at Beatties Ford Health Department.
Girls can join at age 12 and stay through high school, building relationships with each other and the adult mentors, who volunteer their time. There are now three GEMS groups that meet around Charlotte.
THC currently is gearing up for a youth conference in May. The conference will invite 200 to 300 teens to watch a play that stars both professionals and local students and deals with teenage issues. Afterward, breakout sessions with local professionals will inspire students to find their passion and use it to make a positive impact on the world.
It's apparent the 26-member THC staff is passionate about those they serve. They talk enthusiastically about teenagers and their mission. Matkins smiles as she talks about serving adolescents in her new role.
"Teens are open and honest, even about things that are difficult for them," Matkins said. "And we get to see them and take care of them over a long period of time. We get to watch them grow and change."