Emergency care a challenge in many ENC communities & counties without a hospital

Emergency care a challenge in many ENC communities & counties without a hospital
Published: Oct. 4, 2023 at 6:48 PM EDT
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HYDE COUNTY, N.C. (WITN) -There are now eleven counties in eastern Carolina without a hospital following the abrupt closure of Martin General Hospital in August, which means access to emergency care can be a challenge in those locations.

One county that has never had a hospital is Hyde. Hyde County Health Director Luana Gibbs says getting to an emergency room can take some time. “We would have to travel to the nearest hospital in Washington and that’s gonna be a 50-mile drive.”

That drive can be well over an hour. That time was doubled when what was then Vidant Pungo Hospital in Belhaven closed nine years ago. It’s the hospital people in Hyde County used to go to for emergencies.

Gibbs says, “I feel like there have been situations that have occurred that maybe the closing of that hospital was detrimental to an individual.”

Now, residents in Hyde County have the farthest distance of anyone in the state to get to a hospital, according to the North Carolina Rural Health Research program at UNC Chapel Hill. And Gibbs says it means, “That time is not on your side.”

And in a community where fishing and farming are the big industries, accidents can happen, and time can be crucial.

Dick Tunnell, owner of Tunnell Farms in Swanquarter, is well aware of that. He says, “Farm equipment is one of the most dangerous occupations in the whole country. Grain bins and silos.”

Tunnell has farmed this land for the past 50 years. In that time he has needed emergency care. “I’ve road to Washington a time or two, dehydration and whatever. Good service, but 60 minutes is critical.”

That’s why his farm stresses safety, and he says they are fortunate not to have had any serious injuries over the years. “Ya think about it, ya think about it a little.”

Martin County residents are now faced with the same concerns as residents in Hyde County with the closure of Martin General Hospital and people fear the worst when it comes to critical care needs.

Martin County resident Debbie Fleckenstein says, “Without Martin General, I wouldn’t be standing here today.”

Fleckenstein suffered a brain aneurysm five years ago and was stabilized at Martin General before being flown to ECU Health Medical Center in Greenville.

Now, the closest hospital for Martin County residents is 16 miles away at ECU Health Bertie Hospital. Fleckenstein says, If I’d a had to go to Bertie I wouldn’t be standing here I’d be dead already.”

George Pink is the Deputy Director of the NC Rural Health Research Program and has studied the issue of rural hospital closures across the country.

Pink says, “One of the disturbing things I think, amongst the rural hospitals that have closed I believe the median distance is around 15 and a half miles. Fifteen miles doesn’t sound like a lot but when you’re in labor, you’re having a stroke or heart attack, those miles can make the difference between life and death or a successful birth or otherwise.”

WITN asked Gibbs if not having immediate access to emergency care or a hospital in Hyde County is a life and death situation. Gibbs responded, “It could be. It certainly could be.”

The solution in Hyde County has been to have paramedics that respond to emergencies and helicopter pads where East Care can land to fly patients out. You might say they’ve stabilized emergency care in Hyde County. But residents in Martin County see theirs in critical condition. “The fact that we don’t have a hospital is just disheartening to me. It scares me is what it does, said Fleckenstein.”

Gibbs understands their concerns. “I’m sure they’re very nervous because they don’t have that safety net right there in their backdoor like they’ve had. I’m sure they’re concerned for how they’re going to access care.”

It is a concern also in Hyde County, but one that residents have learned to live with. Tunnell says, “We don’t think about it every day.” “If you live here you know what you’re dealing with, said Gibbs.”

While Martin County continues to explore what it will do when it comes to its hospital and emergency care, the NC Rural Health Research Program is looking at what other hospitals in the state may be in dire financial situations and financial distress. That report is expected in the next several months.