Summersville Regional Medical Center is city owned. It provides great care and it is among the lowest cost hospitals in the U.S. It is a rural medical miracle.Finding a bright spot in this troubled economy besides an increase in the price of hogs or the purchase of a bushel of Kennebec potatoes for $15 (advertised in The Nicholas Chronicle) can be hard. But I have one for you and, surprisingly, it has to do with rural health care. This story may be just the thing to take you mind off the mindboggling proposed health care reform act. (This medical miracle is among the least expensive places in America.) And, no, this is not a made-for-TV movie, though it could be one. This is real.
Come with me to my rural hometown of Summersville, West Virginia, population about 2,000 depending on whether it is deer season or turkey season. Summersville, Nicholas County, West Virginia is a one-stoplight town located in the rugged central Appalachian Mountains where the Gauley and New Rivers cut through the jagged rocks. The local creeks have deep fishing holes. Farming is common, but coalmining is the backbone of this community. Miners work the rich Pittsburgh seam of coal. If you need to see friends you can probably catch them at Wal Mart, open 24/7. Major events in the county are the Nicholas County Potato Festival, a county fair and a bluegrass festival.
Before we get into the story about Summersville Memorial Hospital, the rural health care success that ought to be a model for the nation, I want to tell you two stories about the kind of medical services we need around Summersville.
Elza Moore, a coalminer who worked 35 years underground, crossed over to the other side of life after suffering a heart attack — and then came back. Elza made it easy for me to understand our local medical miracle. Five years after his heart attack, Elza lay on his deathbed suffering from lung cancer and I stood beside him in tears at the thought of losing a close friend.
He told me: “I’m not afraid of death now, you know. I’m not afraid of death. I had an out-of-body experience about five years ago, so I know what is ahead for me. I have no fear of dying.”
He explained to me that his soul left him and was hovering above a body racked with pain. A bright white light was in front of him and seemed to be drawing him toward it. He could hear voices but could not make them out. He was looking for his father, mother and young son. Elza said that he had never felt such peace. He was pain free. Some would say it was not his appointed time because a clear, loud voice boomed, “Not now Elza, not now!”
Elza had a heart attack when he was alone at home. He called Joan, his wife, who rushed home from work at the Department of Highways and transported him about seven miles to the Summersville Memorial Hospital Emergency Room where, according to Elza, he was brought back to life.
In a second story, Robert Sattler, another close friend and a West Virginia coalminer of 25 years, described his on-the-job, life-threatening injury and medical miracle:
“It was one of those days when it rained, sleeted and snowed. Everything weather-wise that can make it dangerous was on that day. They pushed the cars (coal cars) toward us and I was moving four cars when the brakes failed. I fell off the car when it hit. I fell off; I hit half way between my shoulders and my waist. I fell 10 feet. I remember trying to flip over. I flipped to my back. One of the wheels caught my right leg and ran over my leg. The front two wheels, 30 tons of steel, ran over my leg diagonally but did not break the bone. My light got hung up. I think I supported some of the weight of the car until my belt broke. The front two wheels ran over me. The way my light was caught, it was twisted. My belt was around me tight. I felt like my insides were going to come out through my mouth and then the strap of the light broke and relieved that pressure. The pain was so intense, I thought, ‘I will die.’ When I reached down to my injured leg, it felt like when you kill a deer; warm, moist and blood everywhere.”
Robert was transported to Summersville Memorial Hospital Emergency Room by ambulance. A Health Net Helicopter transported him to Charleston Area Medical Center in 12 minutes, one of the fastest trips recorded.
Robert said that they told him in Charleston that the people who received him at Summersville Memorial Hospital Emergency Room were really good.
Dr. Yancy Short, a Nicholas County native, was one of Robert’s attending physicians in Charleston. Dr. Short is now on staff as a general surgeon at Summersville Memorial Hospital and also serves on the County Commission.
In March 1968, the City of Summersville created a medical miracle directly related to these two survival stories: Summersville Memorial Hospital. The hospital operated as Summersville Convalescent Home for its first two years but then converted and expanded to include hospital and obstetrical care. That was 40 years ago. It’s now known as Summersville Regional Medical Center.
A locally-owned hospital celebrating its 40th anniversary and continuing to operate in the black while engaging in an aggressive expansion program is a medical as well as a financial miracle in these threatening economic times particularly in rural West Virginia.
And, I should note, Summersville is a money-saver for the nation. Our local, city-owned hospital delivers top-quality care at a cost 36% below the national average for Medicare patients. (See the Yonder for details.) If every hospital could be as efficient as ours, there would be plenty of money to provide every American with the best health care in the world.
Summersville Regional is currently under the leadership of its first female administrator, Debbie Hill, a mother of 7 – 6 boys and 1 girl — and a fellow in the American College of Healthcare Executives. The first administrator was E. C. Fairchild, followed by Landis Hudkins, Don Smith, Greg Johnson and Dave Lackey. The Board of Directors is made up of locals: Bob Britton, Nora Ramsey, Bob Fleer, Brad Dorsey, Anne Marie Stanley, Peg Callaghan, Sam Argento, Robert Shafer and W. D. Smith. They are all people who expect some day to need the services offered at the hospital.
The original mission of the hospital was “Care For Life.” Young families can have their babies there, receive medical services for themselves and their growing children and even look forward to spending convalescent days in their hometown, cared for by health care professionals who are family and friends.
During the 70’s, in order to succeed financially, the hospital changed from serving a farming/mining community of approximately 2,000 people to a regional medical center for a rural an area that was home to 34,000 people. The area has grown some. U.S. 19 was widened from two to four lanes, becoming a major “snowbird” route south. Also in the late 70’s, Summersville Lake was created and became an instant tourist attraction. Whitewater rafting on the Gauley and New Rivers starting at the headwaters of the Summersville Dam brings in thousands of people annually. All of this has resulted in more visitors from out of the region being seen as patients at the hospital.
The hospital has constantly changed to meet the new demands of the area. In the 80’s, a new 53-bed acute care hospital was built and the old building became a 52-bed nursing home. A four- story, 37,000 square foot ambulatory care facility for physician offices and additional outpatient services was constructed in the 90’s. The hospital added the latest medical technology — MRI, nuclear medicine, CT, cardiac rehab, laparoscopic surgery and 3D ultrasound services.
When regulations deemed the hospital’s lab too small, Summersville launched a $12 million dollar extreme makeover project. The hospital was seeing over 100,000 patients a year, but was turning people away. It had clearly outgrown its existing facility.
The board and management began looking for funding in 2005 to expand and renovate the hospital. They snagged a $5 million Rural Development Community Facilities loan. BB&T Bank, which has a branch in Summersville, came forth with another $5 million loan, and the hospital assumed responsibility for the $2 million plus that was left over.
Just last month, the hospital held an open house to showcase the results of this makeover. There was a new emergency department, with 18 beds and a larger waiting area for family and friends equipped with a phone allowing family to check on the condition of their loved ones. The emergency department serves more than 24, 000 patients per year. A new intensive care wing is complete, and work is close to being finished on the new lab and a renovated obstetrics area. The hospital has even put in more parking spaces and a new gift shop.
Plans are being made for construction of a new nursing home during the next decade on the flat land behind the current hospital. The community depends on this service.
Summersville Memorial employs approximately 360 people. Many of the health professionals are locals who have a vested interest in the hospital and the community.
In order to keep costs down after this expansion program and adding additional services, the hospital reduced the number of managers. Those remaining were asked to assume additional responsibilities and employees now handle tasks previously assigned to managers. Managers have been replaced with “leads” who perform their professional job part of the day or week or day and take on a different assignment for the remainder of the time. For example, in radiology, a lead performs CT scans part time, works on scheduling and acts as office manager. This concept has created a work environment of respect. Workers depend on each other.
The community has always been an important component of this success story and the hospital cultivates its relationship with Summersville. When a survey revealed that people didn’t know what services the hospital offered, Summersville Regional launched a publicity campaign with ads in The Nicholas Chronicle newspaper. Hospital leaders belong to local clubs and organizations and speak at many public functions. The hospital is involved with the schools and even sponsors the “Spud Run” during the annual Potato Festival.
The Summersville hospital is always reaching out. It operates a satellite site in Ansted and a Sleep Diagnostic Center for sleep disorders. When the hospital in neighboring Richwood closed, Summersville Regional opened a clinic to serve the community.
What is so enticing about living or visiting the rural town of Summersville, West Virginia, in the Appalachian coalfields? At the top of the list beside the wonderful, warm, friendly people who hold close a unique mountain culture is the Summersville Regional Medical Facility.
It’s a rural medical miracle. Every community ought to have one.