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BELZONI — Byron Stribling was flying down Highway 49, driving southbound towards Yazoo City at around 110 miles per hour. His pregnant wife, Harmony, needed immediate medical attention, but the closest hospital to their home in Belzoni was a 28 minute drive away.
Harmony woke Byron up a little after midnight on July 5, complaining of chest pains.
She started vomiting. Byron carried her to the car, knowing he could get her to the hospital quicker than an ambulance.
“You ask any sane person that lives in Humphreys County, if you call the emergency medical service, they are gonna take a while,” Stribling told Mississippi Today.
Just after crossing into Yazoo County, Harmony went into cardiac arrest in the passenger seat. Byron called 911 and the dispatcher told him to immediately pull over and start administering CPR. He complied, even though he was only two minutes from the hospital by this point.
Still, it took another 15 minutes or so for the ambulance to arrive. The EMTs spent a while trying to resuscitate Harmony. But having grown up in his grandfather’s funeral home, which he now co-owns, Byron knew it was too late — Harmony and their unborn daughter were gone.
Later, the family would learn that she died from preeclampsia, a pregnancy complication that results in high blood pressure and organ damage. Doctors told Byron that she would have almost certainly died regardless, but that if they had immediate access to supplemental oxygen their baby would have likely been saved.
While Stribling’s experience is a worst case scenario, it’s not uncommon for rural Mississippians to lack accessible healthcare. Six rural hospitals in Mississippi have closed since 2014, and according to a 2020 study by the Chartis Center for Rural Health, 64% of Mississippi’s remaining rural hospitals are at high risk of closing.
The heart of rural hospitals’ financial troubles is uncompensated care, or health care provided by hospitals that doesn’t get reimbursed. This happens often because the patient is uninsured, which drains Mississippi hospitals of hundreds of millions of dollars per year. Urban hospitals that serve larger populations — a higher percentage of which carry private health insurance — are able to take on those extra costs and stay afloat. That just isn’t feasible for a hospital serving just a couple thousand people.
The closing of a hospital is often one of the final turning points in the degradation of rural communities. Employers leave, residents who can leave do to pursue better job opportunities elsewhere and then local governments lack the adequate revenue to maintain what’s still there, much less invest in the future. It’s a cycle that repeats itself until a community is a shell of its former self.
This was the case for the town of Marks, the Delta town where Martin Luther King Jr. started the 1968 Poor People’s Campaign. As is often the case with rural hospitals, Quitman Community Hospital was the last major employer in the town when it closed in October 2016.
The absence of meaningful access to emergency care is an issue in rural areas across Mississippi, though some hospitals are forging new and innovative ways to revive service. Quitman Community Hospital reopened its doors on Nov. 7 thanks to a partnership with the nearby Panola County Medical Center.
“It’s nothing short of a miracle to see this come to fruition, especially in a time when we are going through a pandemic and our current political climate,” said state Sen. Robert Jackson, who represents Quitman County and the area the hospital will serve.
Panola will manage the Quitman hospital administratively, dramatically decreasing Quitman’s overhead costs. Panola will also share staff with the Quitman hospital, such as nurse practitioners and respiratory therapists, as needed to further cut staffing costs.
Quentin Whitwell, chief executive officer and chairman of the board for the Panola Medical Center, was challenged in 2020 to consider reopening the Quitman hospital. He was diagnosed with COVID-19 on Aug. 23, 2021 and only exhibiting mild symptoms, and used his ten-day quarantine period to develop a plan. Whitwel then went to the Quitman County Board of Supervisors, who approved the deal on Sept.7.
“We’re very honored to have the opportunity to serve this community,” Whitwell said.
Magee General Hospital accomplished a similar feat in May 2021, when it emerged from bankruptcy just over a year after its new CEO Gregg Gibbes took over. He salvaged the hospital’s finances by having it share staff with Covington County Hospital, where Gibbes is also CEO.
Whitwell, the Marks hospital CEO, thinks these successes prove this model can work and save more rural hospitals from the brink.
“This is a strong message that good operators can make it work… other locations just need the help,” Whitwell said.
Back in Belzoni, Byron went to work on burying Harmony and their child. In the throes of grief, Byron and Harmony’s mother, Shenelle Ball-Burks, went to the Humphreys County Board of Supervisors to challenge them to find a way to reopen Humphreys County Memorial Hospital, where Byron was born. It closed in 2013. They were told there was no path to making that happen.
Burks doesn’t think it’s an unreasonable ask for a community that prides itself as being “the heart of the Delta” and the catfish capital of the world.
“I told the board that most people called the old hospital ‘a bandaid station.’ But I also said, ‘If you cut your finger, the first thing you’re looking for is a bandaid.’ We’re not asking for anything that’s not needed, or shouldn’t be here for anyone that lives here,” Ball-Burks said.