Cambrian: Opinion

Access to health care a chronic concern in Cambria

In my years-ago capacity as a “small town relocation guru” (I founded the Greener Pastures Institute), I often suggested to potential movers that they carefully evaluate the amenities of a community before they commit to it 100 percent.

A major drawback of living in Cambria (and there aren’t really too many, as a recent letter writer gushed) is the dearth of medical professionals.  Fairly recently, one of only two family practitioners retired. The nearest hospital is 30 to 35 miles away. We have an excellent ambulance service within the Cambria Community Healthcare District (CCHD), well-trained emergency medical technicians and a local Community Health Center (CHC) serving the poor. But it isn’t near enough.

Many Cambrians move away for just this reason, and we have known people who have gone to Paso Robles, San Luis Obispo and even Santa Maria, where medical facilities are abundant.

Our problem became acutely apparent to me when a good friend’s husband died suddenly — he was gravely ill upon returning from an overseas trip.  The 30- to 45-minute drive to Sierra Vista Hospital by ambulance may or may not have contributed to his demise, but it certainly couldn’t have helped. He died there after going into shock from a bacterial infection that should and could have been treated  sooner (but he had just arrived home off a plane).  

Another example: Someone I also know recently criticized the town for not having cell towers on the Fiscalini Ranch. He had a stroke there and felt lucky to have gotten out alive. The Tribune recently did a report on how local hospitals are now stroke patient-certified, but first you have to get to them for immediate treatment.

Our friend’s husband’s grieving widow is in our thoughts every day. He was 71, in good health and a member of the couples dance club, as are we. We have a vacation rental and see medical professionals from everywhere quite frequently. I’ve often asked them what they think we should do about “our problem.” They say recruiting more physicians is difficult and that it has to be done by convincing a medical clinic in SLO or Paso to open a branch office here. 

There has to be an economic incentive, obviously. 

Years ago, I wrote a piece for Resident and Staff Physician magazine about how doctors are attracted to small towns. I knew one who’d moved to Bend, Ore., then population 17,000, which had a small hospital. We’re nowhere near the size Bend was, but it was certainly isolated then — dozens of miles from a major urban area —as are we. My findings: Docs came to Bend because of the outdoor lifestyle and safety of raising their families in a nurturing small city/town. We could certainly build on our reputation for livability.

We could try to recruit doctors to eventually get a clinic or urgent care facility going — possibly with specialists in gerontology, pediatrics, neurology, etc. 

Actually, this is being discussed right now at the CHD following a questionnaire that was sent out by a group of 20 local nurses to area service groups. But there appears to be a disagreement among the five board members as to whether to proceed or — amazingly — actually fold the CHD into the fire department.

Here’s one glaring fact about the need for urgent care locally: A recent piece in The Tribune focused on how cardiologists have slashed the time it takes to clear a blockage in a patient’s arteries and get blood flowing again after a heart attack. Half of all hospitals can now insert a balloon and stent within 61 minutes or less —provided the patient can get to the hospital in time.

Aye, there’s the rub. Will a Cambria patient make it in time? Is there anything an EMT can do to ensure that he/she won’t suffer irreparable heart damage in the 30 to 45 minutes in takes to get to SLO or Templeton? (If there is, I’d like to hear about it).

All of us who are well past middle age (or getting there) must be realistic about what is possible from the medical community in a place such as Cambria. It obviously behooves us to try to stay in good health, but accidents happen, and aging and decline are obviously inevitable.

I have raised some questions I don’t have all the answers to. But it’s clear to me this subject needs to be addressed pronto, and not ignored.