Entering Hyde county, North Carolina. Photograph: Justin Cook for the Guardian
Dan Drake, Vidant’s senior vice-president of operations, says the group is expanding the emergency department in Washington, but has no plans to reintroduce one in Belhaven.” We know that we are seeing an increase in patients that are using this clinic ,” Drake says.” The people who live there and work there and serve those people are proud of what they’re doing .”
Still, the most consistent impressions I gathered in a discussion with more than 40 people around the region were apprehension and skepticism. Several, such as Barbara Gibbs, indicated that they are desperate for an emergency room.
Mackey, on the docks, lives less than a mile from the clinic and went there with ache in his knee recently.” Basically, they gave me an Ace bandage, but when that bill came, it was $900 ,” he says.” If you don’t have a fancy insurance policy or a crisp $100 bill in your pocket, you’re going to get treated different .”
On Father’s Day last year, a two-year-old boy with a mop of black hair was playing in his yard in Hyde county when a copperhead snake slithered out from under a plaything vehicle and bit him. His mommy, Hannah Berry, sped 20 miles to the clinic. Staff there told her to drive to Washington, and staff there ordered an airlift to Greenville. Finally, after two vehicle rides and a flight, the son received anti-venom. It was at least two hours after he started screaming, Hannah recalls.
Last July, Latoya Chase took her elderly mother to the clinic with chest pain. When Chase went inside for help,” they told me that I needed to call 911 ,” she says. She called, and they waited in the parking lot for paramedics. Chase’s mother survived- physicians detected blood clots , not a heart attack- but Chase remains furious.” Running there is a waste of period ,” she says of the clinic.
Sally Holton, an 89 -year-old retired schoolteacher, went to the clinic with exhaling problems in 2016 and says doctors called hospitals in Washington and Greenville. Neither had room. They sent her farther west, to a Vidant-owned hospital about 75 miles west of Belhaven.
” I have been in a mess without the hospital ,” Holton says.” I’ve just been disabled .”
Dr Mark Holmes, a prof at UNC, is director of the North Carolina Rural Health Research and Policy Analysis Center. A challenge with analyzing the effects of a rural hospital closure, he says, is that deaths are the only health statistic that’s easy to track.
His team can examine economics- there’s a 4% drop in per-capita income and an increase in unemployment by 1.6% after one closes- but there’s no way to count the people who stay home sick when they should see a doctor, or how many visits a family would construct if a patient was closer to home. The toll on relationships is impossible to quantify.
” Imagine Green Bay without the Packers ,” Holmes says.” It’s a similar type of thing: We’re a real township because we have a hospital. We’re a real city because we have a professional athletic team. Those things dedicate social textile, which we know is important to a healthy community .”
‘Guess what? We’re still here’
Forty-seven miles west of Barry and Po’s yard, seagulls caw and circle the property that was once Pungo district hospital. Had Po complained of chest pains one week earlier, this would have been Barry’s destination. He doesn’t know if the hospital would have saved her but says:” There’s always that glimmer of hope .”
The building’s outline remains. The weather-worn asphalt in the parking lot cuts and juttings around grass: a horseshoe where an entrance once welcomed guests, a sidewalk to emergencies, all paths to nowhere now.
The non-profit group that controls the property is selling it to a developer for $525,000. There’s potential. Belhaven’s waterfront sparkles. A block away are a couple of rows of big homes with front porch, and handful of restaurants that serve local seafood. Boaters passing through along the Intracoastal Waterway will stop in and eat this summer.
The newest business in township is an ice cream store started by Credle and his daughter, Shaiana. Sweet Tooth opened on 30 March, and Shaiana smiled as she sold two scoops of salted caramel to the first customers.
” It’s not the end of the world ,” the new mayor says of losing the hospital.” When the schools left, they said that’s the end of Belhaven. Guess what? We’re still here. When the crab industry left, people said Belhaven is dying. Guess what? We’re still here. Well, the hospital closed and guess what? We’re still here .”
That general status report is something most people can agree on, even Barry Gibbs, as he winces and picks up sticks around Po’s headstone, counting the reasons to move.
For better or worse, he’s still here.
Michael Graff is a novelist based in Charlotte, North Carolina.