As a 4-year-old child sitting on a riding lawn mower, Chris Bell reached to pluck a leaf from a tree on her family’s Darlington dairy farm. She fell off the running mower and suffered a serious hand injury from the blades, an accident that required a one-month hospitalization.

The care that Bell received after the accident was so impactful that it forged the path for her nursing career. Devoted to public health and community service, Bell instructs Edgewood College students on how to aid underprivileged patient populations.

The list is long of communities that Bell has taken care of and volunteered with since graduating from Edgewood College’s Henry Predolin School of Nursing in 1984. She’s helped various groups in Guatemala including indigenous women and children, Sauk County’s jail population, clients at Saint Vincent de Paul Food Pantry in Madison and the Community Connections Free Clinic in Dodgeville, to name a few.

Recently, Bell has finished compiling a free clinic needs assessment and is now in the beginning stages of sharing the findings, with the hope of opening a free clinic in her hometown of Darlington, in Lafayette County. She learned that in 2015, about 29 percent of the free clinic’s patients traveled from Lafayette County to Dodgeville, which is in Iowa County.

Bell, an Edgewood instructor since 2005, says the most common problems she sees at the free clinic are people battling chronic health conditions, especially diabetes, hypertension, depression and anxiety. Most often, that stress stems from a person working multiple jobs or grappling with financial issues.

Bell’s motivation to help underserved populations is driven by this question: “What’s going to happen to the health of our children and our communities if people can’t afford health care?”

Roberta Pawlak, associate dean of the graduate programs at Edgewood’s School of Nursing, says Bell has succeeded during a 32-year nursing career due to her versatility, respectfulness and personal volunteer projects.

“She’s trying to identify areas that could support underserved areas,” Pawlak says of Bell, who has an obstetrics and community health background. “It’s very hard and there just aren’t resources, and that is her quest, her life’s work.

“I would interpret it as [life’s work] because she’s very consistent. It’s not like: ‘Oh, I’m going to do this for two weeks or three weeks or six months.’ People who do give back to the community frame it that way, but her care is sustainable,” says Pawlak, who nominated Bell as a Top Nurse.

The final semester at Edgewood College’s School of Nursing is a community/public health clinical, which Pawlak believes is a good way to complete course work, since many students are likely to seek jobs in a hospital-based setting. Bell and her students have worked with clients at Saint Vincent de Paul Food Pantry in Madison and Dodgeville’s free clinic.

Pawlak points out that the public health training has value within a traditional hospital. “They’ll always have this awareness [and] work better with case managers in getting people back home and back in the communities,” she says.

Bell’s goal with younger generations of nurses is to provide an understanding of the challenges people face with both accessing and paying for health care.

“When you’re working in a hospital, you go into the supply room and get what you need,” she says. “In a free clinic, most often clients are uninsured or have such high deductibles that they are seeking care because they cannot afford care.

“The reality is: They need to know where are the food pantries, where can you connect them in the community to get education ... What are those resources to help that patient stay out of the hospital?”