RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — It was lunchtime on Election Day and Gary McElyea, a councilman in a small town perched in Virginia’s sprawling westernmost county, was campaigning under a tent when the heart attack struck.
“We were out at the polls, and he just hit the ground,” said fellow Pennington Gap councilwoman Jill Carson, who described an agonizing wait for a helicopter to arrive and whisk McElyea to a Tennessee hospital about 40 miles (64 kilometers) away.
There was nowhere local to go for care because Lee County’s only hospital, about a mile down the road from where McElyea fell ill, abruptly shut its doors in 2013.
In the five years since, local community leaders have been fighting to reopen the facility, and after a series of fits and starts, it looked for much of this year like that might happen thanks to a deal with a startup company. But financial challenges the company acknowledges it’s been working through have thrown the plan into question at the last minute, officials say. It’s a story that illustrates the herculean task of trying to revive a shuttered rural hospital and the harsh realities of disparate access to health care in many parts of America.
“Our county desperately needs a hospital,” said Dr. J. Scott Litton Jr., a family medicine doctor and a native of mountainous Lee County, which is home to some 24,000 people. One of Virginia’s poorest counties, hit hard by the opioid crisis and the decline of the coal industry, Lee County stretches some 70 miles (113 kilometers) across, into the corner where the state meets Kentucky and Tennessee.
Litton and other local officials and community leaders say the closure has been devastating, resulting not only in far longer travel times for patients like McElyea but also a strain on emergency services and the local economy. Some are convinced people have died because of a lack of access to care.
Litton said it’s not unusual to have patients waiting in his parking lot before the office opens, often with issues that would be better treated at an emergency department.
“We have patients that walk in with fractures, and patients that walk in with their hand wrapped with a towel with an active, bleeding laceration,” Litton said.
Lee County’s long, triangular shape has made the loss of the hospital “a nightmare for emergency responders,” said county administrator Dane Poe.
In some areas, it’s now at least an hour to get to a hospital of any kind, and the closest trauma center is in Kingsport, Tennessee, Poe said. That can mean a three- to four-hour turnaround on a single call for the county’s patchwork of volunteer rescue squads.
The closing also cost the county jobs and has made it harder to recruit new industries or even workers to the area, Poe said.
Many residents were shocked when the hospital’s previous owner announced…