Dedra Hayden

Associate Professor, School of Nursing
Director, Kentucky Racing Health Services Center

Jockeys and trainers may get the glory and attention come horse racing season, but Dedra Hayden considers their less heralded helpers the hardest working people she knows.

And the School of Nursing associate professor considers it her privilege and mission to keep the backside workers at Louisville’s famous Churchill Downs – and their families – healthier through the nearby Kentucky Racing Health Services Center steps away from the track’s barns that lodge the equine stars.

Hayden ’97, ’09, ’19 first became enthralled by the nonprofit practice when she was applying for clinical rotations to complete her master’s degree. “I thrived there as a student, and honestly I fell in love with it.”

After Hayden had worked in private practice for a year, the program’s founding director called to see if she’d be interested in returning. “Oh my gosh, are you kidding me? Yes!” was Hayden’s response.

Now the clinic director since 2017, Hayden considers her position the best of both worlds as a nurse practitioner, combining the practice there with her classroom work as a UofL faculty member. “What I teach in the classroom totally ties in with what I’m doing at the clinic.”

“I feel like every day we flourish there. There’s something inspiring every day – a patient that touches your heart,” she said.

The nursing school and Kentucky Racing Health and Welfare Fund Inc. worked to set up the clinic to provide comprehensive health care to backside workers – the ones who groom the horses, take them on morning workouts, walk them after races or workouts so the animals can cool off gradually, clean stalls and assist trainers in many ways.

Their predawn start stretches into very physical, long days and can take a toll on people over time – with back pain, musculoskeletal problems, mental health issues and lifestyle-related chronic diseases such as diabetes as some common examples.

“We’re basically serving an at-risk population that is uninsured,” Hayden said. ”They bring with them a unique set of needs as patients.”

Not the least of those is a language barrier; 85% are non-English-speaking immigrants. Hayden said her team works hard to incorporate cultural competencies so that the caregivers are doing all they can to be mindful of cultural aspects of care and to build trust with the patients without overwhelming them with information.

Through a relationship with UofL’s Latin American and Latino studies program, the clinic hosts students for language internships to aid in translation and interpretation. Students from dentistry, community health, global health, nursing and pre-med are among those gaining valuable life experience there while learning to give back.

What began as a safety net for those workers has “evolved into a full-blown primary care site,” she said. ”We try to provide the highest quality of care possible from well-trained nurse practitioners.”

The clinic was recently named an exemplary project by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation in its community engagement scholarship awards. The team was thrilled by the recognition for its work, which also benefits the city and Kentucky.

“It’s a huge contribution to our community,” Hayden said. “If we didn’t have backside workers and keep them in the workforce and healthy and working, we wouldn’t have a Derby.”

When the Louisville resident first applied to UofL, she was an education major. Then she found her way to health care and back full circle, three degrees later, within a special teaching role in reaching students as well as the local racing families.

“It is a privilege to be able to teach and be able to practice and make a difference in people’s lives,” Hayden said. “I value them as much as they value me.”