The hospital had already transferred out most of its patients and lost half its staff when the CEO called a meeting to take inventory of what was left. Employees crammed into Tina Steele’s office at Fairfax Community Hospital, where the air conditioning was no longer working and the computer software had just been shut off for nonpayment.
“I want to start with good news,” Steele said, and she told them a food bank would make deliveries to the hospital and Dollar General would donate office supplies.
“So how desperate are we?” one employee asked. “How much money do we have in the bank?”
“Somewhere around $12,000,” Steele said.
“And how long will that last us?”
“Under normal circumstances?” Steele asked. She looked down at a chart on her desk and ran calculations in her head. “Probably a few hours,” she said. “Maybe a day at most.”
The staff had been fending off closure hour by hour for the past several months, ever since debt for the 15-bed hospital surpassed $1 million and its outside ownership group entered into bankruptcy, beginning a crisis in Fairfax that is becoming familiar across much of rural America. More than 100 of the country’s remote hospitals have gone broke and then closed in the past decade, turning some of the most impoverished parts of the United States into what experts now call “health-hazard zones,” and Fairfax was on the verge of becoming the latest. The emergency room was down to its final four tanks of oxygen. The nursing staff was out of basic supplies such as snakebite antivenin and strep tests. Hospital employees had not received paychecks for the past 11 weeks and counting.
The only reason the hospital had been able to stay open at all was that about 30 employees continued showing up to work without pay, increasing their hours to fill empty shifts and essentially donating time to the hospital, understanding what was at stake. Some of them had been born or had given birth at Fairfax Community. Several others had been stabilized and treated in the emergency room after heart attacks or accidents. There was no other hospital within 30 miles of two-lane roads and prairie in sprawling Osage County, which meant Fairfax Community was the only lifeline in a part of the country that increasingly needed rescuing.
“If we aren’t open, where do these people go?” asked a physician assistant, thinking about the dozens of patients he treated each month in the ER, including some in critical condition after drug overdoses, falls from horses, oil field disasters or car crashes.
“They’ll go to the cemetery,” another employee said. “If we’re not here, these people don’t have time. They’ll die along with this hospital.”
“We have no supplies,” Steele said. “We have nothing. How much longer can we provide quality care?”
As emergencies rise across rural America, a hospital fights for its lifeAs emergencies rise across rural America, a hospital fights for its life