Medical resources hard to come by in rural towns

By Marlena Hartz: CNJ staff writer

Stretching medical resources to the limit is a way of life in small cities on the outskirts of Curry County.

There are no doctors in Melrose and no medical clinics to serve its population of roughly 700, according to city officials. The same is true in Grady, an even tinier town with a population that hovers around 100.

Residents of these fringe towns and others in Curry County must travel sometimes more than 30 miles to Plains Regional Medical Center in Clovis or Roosevelt General Hospital in Portales for emergency medical care.

But PRMC, the primary source of health care for the 110,000 people who live within 100 miles of Clovis, is not always equipped to provide complex care.

Two-hundred and fifty regional patients were transported from the facility by helicopter in 2005, according to PRMC spokesperson Tayloria Grant. Though the facility has ample landing space for two helicopters, it does not host an air transportation unit. So patients must wait there while helicopters fly in, usually from neighboring Texas cities, she said.

And there are more serious hitches when it comes to medical transportation for rural residents.

Melrose patients en route to Plains Regional Medical Center have been transferred from Melrose-owned ambulances to Clovis-owned ambulances on the side of the highway, according to new Melrose Mayor Lance Pyle. He said that occurs about twice a year when medical needs conflict in the village.

“It is just part of living in a small community,” Pyle said.

Melrose owns two ambulances, the newest one almost four years old, and the oldest, 14. When patients are transferred along the highway from one ambulance to another, it is usually because there has been a car accident with multiple victims, or there is a request for service when the two Melrose ambulances are en route.

State Sen. Clint Harden, R-Clovis, knows the needs of Grady intimately. “In general, rural New Mexico suffers,” he said. “Health care is an essential component of the economic health of any area in the state, and if we are going to exist or grow in rural New Mexico, we have to have good health care, and emergency health care is essential.”

Grady owns one ambulance. Made in 1987, it has accumulated about 140,000 miles, according to Grady Mayor Wesley Shaffer.

State legislators this year appropriated $175,000 to Grady for the purchase of a new ambulance. The appropriation was slashed by the governor, who granted the city $50,000 for the ambulance, about half of what is needed to purchase a new one, according to Harden.

Shaffer calmly accepted the cut. “We will be fine,” the Grady mayor said, “until we get a new one. We were just looking ahead.”

He said Grady officials will lobby for a new ambulance again next year.
To solve ambulance woes in Melrose, elected officials leaned toward an untraditional solution.

Unlike Grady, the city of Lovington did receive money to purchase a new ambulance, approximately $290,000.

Lovington City Manager Pat Wise, who serves approximately 9,000 people, decided to give his old ambulance to Melrose following a discussion with the new mayor.

Pyle estimated the gift will arrive in Melrose around August.

“I think we have to have these collaborations between smaller cities and larger cities,” Pyle said.

“We don’t have a lot of taxes for improvements. We need the bigger communities to help, and if we work together, we can improve,” he said.

Sen. Gay Kernan, R-Hobbs, who facilitated the exchange between Lovington, a city in her district, and Melrose, said Lovington has donated an ambulance to a small community at least twice.

“This effort of sharing can certainly improve the situation for providing good medical services in small communities,” Kernan said.

But such sharing among communities is not common, Kernan said.

The governor isn’t ignoring small towns strapped for better medical services and transportation, despite the slash in funds to Grady, said secretary of his finance and administration department, James Jimenez.

The budget simply had to be balanced after legislators overspent, Jimenez said.

“The governor had to make some very tough choices,” he said.

Jimenez said his boss has a record of supporting Curry County. And he did so again in this session, granting Curry $13 million in funding, a balanced figure, Jimenez said, in relation to the rest of the state.

For Sen. Harden, the slash in ambulance funds for Grady was akin to a slap in the face, not to him, but to the region.
“The ambulance was pretty much all Grady wanted,” Harden said.

But the region in need remains resilient, he said.

“One thing I know about that little community,” he said, “is they have been and will always be very resourceful.”