People sometimes think that rural or regional hospitals suffer in comparison to the larger, general hospitals. They see a lack of specialists — diagnosticians and surgeons — in life-and-death health events such as snake bite or heart attack. They may also have the perception that the quality of care at rural or regional hospitals is inferior to that at larger hospitals. Here’s evidence the first problem may be true but not necessarily the second.
Last Feb. 1, just before midnight, my wife suddenly experienced searing pain across her shoulders and back. It was a five-minute drive from our house in Del Norte to the Rio Grande Hospital emergency room, where the physician on call, Dr. Clifford Robins, quickly diagnosed aortic dissection and put her on medication to reduce her blood pressure. That alone probably saved her life.
Aortic dissection is when the layers of the artery wall begin to tear apart. It is a prelude to rupture of the aorta, which is usually lethal. Surgery is essential, the sooner the better. Every hour that aortic dissection is left without intervention, the chances of death increase three percent.
Normally at Rio Grande Hospital, Jan would have been put on a medevac helicopter and flown to Colorado Springs Memorial Hospital, which has the closest cardiovascular surgeon. But the night of Feb. 1, as may be remembered, was the worst snowstorm of the season, not only across Colorado but across New Mexico, Arizona, Utah, and Wyoming. The emergency-room personnel spent three hours trying to find anyone who would fly Jan to a large hospital in any of those states, with no luck. Finally, they contacted South Fork Ambulance, who, amazingly, agreed to drive her to Colorado Springs. It was 4 a.m. and snow was falling heavily the whole route. La Veta Pass got 16 inches that night. Colorado Springs itself got 22 inches.
The ambulance arrived. Members of the crew, Jed Pilant and Lucas Slade, were friendly, unassuming, and efficient. Without hesitation, the emergency-room nurse, RN Kelli Overall, agreed that she should ride in the ambulance to attend Jan the whole way. And they were off into the night, thick with snow.
To cut the story short, it took them about five hours to get to Colorado Springs. An operation-room assistant told me that the snow was so bad he barely was able to get to the hospital, and he lives in Colorado Springs.
Open-heart surgery proceeded shortly, and currently Jan is almost fully recovered. So, the point of the story could be her miraculous survival. The surgeon said he didn’t know how she lasted the ambulance ride. But another point of the story is that she survived because of local expertise and decisions on the part of people with the South Fork Ambulance and the Rio Grande Hospital. I can’t thank them enough.
Regional or rural health care has its challenges, for sure — funding, breadth of expertise, low pay. But one of its problems is not the knowledge, dedication, or professionalism of its staff.