CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. (CN) — It took an emergency for Garrett Burns and his wife to learn the kind of service McKenzie Regional Hospital gave to their rural Tennessee community.
In March 2009, Burns and his wife were students at Bethel University. “It was our first child so everything was an emergency, obviously,” said Burns, now a chaplain with the Cumberland Presbyterian Church.
All during the pregnancy he and his wife traveled 80 miles round trip to a hospital in the larger metropolitan area of Jackson because friends and family recommended the larger hospital, thinking a bigger metropolitan hospital would give them better care. But everything was thrown out the window when late one night Burns’ wife called him into the bathroom and he saw that she had been bleeding profusely.
He called an ambulance. The closest hospital was McKenzie regional.
"Not to get too specific, the baby engaged pretty hard and that's common among first deliveries, first children. But it caused a lot of bleeding and a lot more than we were expecting,” Burns said.
Turns out, according to Burns, thanks to an Amish community nearby, McKenzie hospital’s delivery services was staffed by a good number of midwives and doulas. It was better care than what Burns and his wife could have received at the larger hospital many miles away.
The experience, Burns said, "changed our opinion completely of rural health care,” and the rest of the Burns’ children were birthed locally.
But in 2018, McKenzie Regional closed.
A college town home to Bethel University, a robust farmer’s market and ball clay that attracted porcelain manufacturers, McKenzie was one of the rural communities to join the trend of communities facing rural hospital closures across the country. The trend continues through the Covid-19 pandemic and researchers expect that this year might see the highest number of hospital closures nationwide.
In news releases from that time, Quorum Health Corporation announced it was discontinuing operation of McKenzie Regional and selling its assets to a company with other hospitals in the area: Baptist Memorial Health Care Corporation.
McKenzie Mayor Jill Holland said when reached by phone that the private hospital, which delivered about 300 babies a year, had been losing millions of dollars a year, despite its efforts.
“They brought in specialty doctors, they brought in new equipment,” Holland said. “They did everything they could to build up the clientele but so many of our citizens are on fixed incomes one way or another. So many of them don't have the insurance and it just was not anything that the hospital could sustain.”
There are no plans for another hospital to move into town, Holland said. There is no incentive for them to do so.
Recently, a $50,000 grant facilitated the purchase of a telehealth machine so that McKenzie residents could consult with doctors at, say, Vanderbilt University Medical Center.
As a result of the closure, Baptist Healthcare beefed up the services its clinic provided, such as providing crisis care.
These days, in event of an accident or emergency, McKenzie can rely on an air helicopter to chopper in and ferry out critically injured people, McKenzie Police Chief Craig Moates said by phone.
Nearby hospitals are about 10 to 15 minutes away when ambulances are going emergency speed. But the clock can quickly run up to 45 minutes if there is flooding on the roads and the ambulances need to take a different route, Holland said.
“One of the things that impacts us is, for example, with not having a local hospital, if we have certain criminal activity, a DUI for example, our blood draws have to be done in another jurisdiction in an area that we don't have authority in,” Moates said.