When Distance Becomes a Matter of Life and Death: The Walk to Save Rural Hospitals

Shailly Gupta Barnes

Last June, a 283 mile march from Belhaven, N.C. to Washington D.C. was organized to bring awareness to the 283 rural hospitals that are being threatened or scheduled to close across the country.

In 2014, the For­ward Togeth­er Moral Move­ment from North Car­oli­na con­nect­ed with Adam O’Neal, the Repub­li­can may­or of Bel­haven, N.C., a small town in the south­east part of the state. Belhaven’s only hos­pi­tal and emer­gency room was shut down by Vidant Health last year. After Vidant was been brought in by the town to help man­age the hos­pi­tal, they cre­at­ed a new board under their con­trol. The board decid­ed to close the hos­pi­tal down, which meant that peo­ple in and around Bel­haven had to dri­ve an extra 30 miles to the near­est emer­gency room, to a hos­pi­tal that Vidant itself owns. Soon after the clo­sure, a woman named Por­tia Gibbs had a heart attack. She died in a park­ing lot wait­ing for a heli­copter to come take her to Vidant’s hos­pi­tal those addi­tion­al 30 miles away.

O’Neal decid­ed that dras­tic mea­sures were need­ed to get the hos­pi­tal open again, so he planned to walk hun­dreds of miles from Bel­haven to Wash­ing­ton, D.C., in mem­o­ry of Por­tia Gibbs, to draw atten­tion to the issue. He was joined by Rev. Dr. William Bar­ber and the For­ward Togeth­er Moral Move­ment who sup­port­ed this life-and-death strug­gle for health care. After attend­ing the send-off ral­ly, Bob Zell­ner, a long time rur­al orga­niz­er and civ­il rights activist, walked with May­or O’Neal almost the whole way.

This year, O’Neal and Zell­ner orga­nized The Walk again, this time broad­en­ing the fight from just one hos­pi­tal to the 283 hos­pi­tals around the coun­try in dan­ger of being closed. Read more about this year’s walk at their web­site, and on the Kairos Cen­ter blog.

(Note: This is part II of Shail­ly Gup­ta Barnes’ inter­view with Bob Zell­ner. Click here for Part I of the con­ver­sa­tion, Orga­niz­ing with Klans­men for Social Jus­tice: Bob Zell­ner Tells His Sto­ry.” The inter­view has been edit­ed for length and clarity.)

Can you tell us about May­or Adam O’Neal and the kind of leader he is?

The rea­son Adam O’Neal is May­or O’Neal today is because Black men­tors took him in hand ear­ly on. They had gone to school with him in high school and seen some­thing in his spir­it. And he said he want­ed to run for may­or, and they said, You want to be may­or? We can make you mayor.”

One of the first things that Arthur Butch, who took Adam under his wing, says to Adam is, Have you been to a Black church ser­vice?” Adam says, Well, no.” Well, you’re going to need to do that.” So the next Sun­day, Adam, for the first time in his life, went to a Black Bap­tist church. And he said, You know, I’m not much for hold­ing hands or hug­ging and every­thing, but this big black dea­con met me at the front door with a hand about this big, full of cal­lous­es and every­thing, strong farm­work­er or maybe works in the pulp­wood indus­try or some­thing.” He said, That black dea­con took my hand in his big old paw and he didn’t let me go for two hours.” He told me, All day that dea­con stuck with me.” So he start­ed to learn about the culture.

What’s May­or O’Neal’s rela­tion­ship with Moral Mondays?

Adam now orga­nizes non-vio­lent work­shops for he and I and oth­er peo­ple to run. We’ve been doing typ­i­cal clas­si­cal SNCC non­vi­o­lent work­shops, doing lunch coun­ters, march­es, how do you orga­nize pick­et lines, how do you have spokes­peo­ple, for some­times 100, 125 peo­ple, 50 – 60 per­cent of them might be white. A good per­cent­age of Black peo­ple, but lots of white peo­ple in there.

This to me as an orga­niz­er, I mean what kind of oppor­tu­ni­ty do you ever have for some­thing like that, at the grass­roots? I mean these peo­ple, some of them are true right-wingers, who are begin­ning to change but they don’t even real­ize the extent to which they’re chang­ing just by doing the things they’ve already done.

And what pre­cip­i­tat­ed this action around the Bel­haven hos­pi­tal closures?

Well, Bel­haven is in Beau­fort Coun­ty and just east of that is the largest coun­ty in North Car­oli­na, which is also the most sparse­ly pop­u­lat­ed, and the poor­est. So the two coun­ties togeth­er are the poor­est areas in the state. There’s a Hill-Bur­ton hos­pi­tal from 1945 there, the first one ever built, a his­toric hos­pi­tal. And this Vidant cor­po­ra­tion comes in and thinks absolute­ly noth­ing of com­ing in with the inten­tion of clos­ing and destroy­ing the hos­pi­tal, so that peo­ple would have to go 30 more miles to their hos­pi­tal in Wash­ing­ton, North Car­oli­na, which is also a feed­er hos­pi­tal to their hos­pi­tal fur­ther west in Greenville, so they can make more mon­ey. Vidant already has 700 mil­lion dol­lars in reserve — a non-prof­it orga­ni­za­tion. And the CEO makes $2 mil­lion a year.

The hos­pi­tal board is head­ed by Art Keeney who is from Engel­hard, North Car­oli­na, which is about 80 miles east of Bel­haven. Those peo­ple used to have to come 60 or 80 miles to Bel­haven, now they have to add anoth­er 30 on that, 100 miles or so, or over. Those peo­ple are dying down there. And Art Keeney, he’s in charge of eco­nom­ic devel­op­ment for all of east­ern North Car­oli­na, his idea of eco­nom­ic devel­op­ment is to close the hos­pi­tal and destroy a two or three coun­ty area.

But the fact is it didn’t have to be closed, not for finan­cial rea­sons or any­thing. I mean, for finan­cial rea­sons, to enrich a tremen­dous­ly wealthy cor­po­ra­tion that already has almost a bil­lion dol­lars, and because you lost maybe a mil­lion dol­lars in a year when the CEO makes 2 mil­lion dol­lars? Vidant want­ed to close the hos­pi­tal and they kept pump­ing mon­ey into it and charg­ing expens­es from oth­er hos­pi­tals to Bel­haven that it didn’t even incur. The whole salary of the hos­pi­tal man­ag­er — he was only there two days a week — was charged to the hos­pi­tal. So they loaded up this hos­pi­tal with all of this stuff and unnec­es­sary peo­ple and all kinds of things to show that it’s los­ing mon­ey so they can close the hospital.

So, in Bel­haven, Vidant lied about it. They said they had lost a mil­lion dol­lars so they had to close it. Well they intend­ed to close it when they moved there and took over the hos­pi­tal. And they did that because it was the poor­est area, heav­i­ly Black, the coun­ty is prob­a­bly 70 per­cent Black, and a Demo­c­ra­t­ic area basi­cal­ly, with the aber­ra­tion of being rep­re­sent­ed by this Repub­li­can may­or. Adam O’Neal. And the whole econ­o­my of the area depends on this hospital.

Now what if your child gets hit and you need to have them be 5 min­utes from emer­gency care rather than half an hour. And it might mean the dif­fer­ence between that child sur­viv­ing. A 16-year-old was just run over the oth­er day in Bel­haven and since the ambu­lances were off some­where else, there’s no emer­gency room there any­more, they had to wait on the heli­copter. And he’s bleed­ing, he’s bad­ly bad­ly injured. And the heli­copter gets there and they said he’s too unsta­ble to go on the heli­copter now. So he was maybe 5 min­utes from the emer­gency room at Bel­haven, which had been closed, he would’ve been there, he would’ve had blood, he would’ve had doc­tors and he would’ve had trained peo­ple with­in 5 min­utes. And he died the next day because there was an hour and a half before he could get any med­ical atten­tion. He just bled to death basi­cal­ly, a 16-year-old. It strikes all ages but that is the main wor­ry that peo­ple have in Bel­haven. Peo­ple are going to leave who have young chil­dren, because it’s a fish­ing com­mu­ni­ty, it’s a boat­ing com­mu­ni­ty, hunt­ing, farm­ing, all kinds of things. This young 16 year old, if he’d been tak­en right to the hos­pi­tal he’d at least of had a chance that he could’ve lived, but once there’s no hos­pi­tal there it means he dies.

What Adam says is that they under­es­ti­mat­ed the peo­ple in Bel­haven, because the peo­ple are used to hur­ri­canes, they’re fish­ing peo­ple, they work in the woods, tim­ber, they’re farm­ers, resilient peo­ple. He says they total­ly dis­re­gard­ed the fact that they were resilient peo­ple that were sur­vivors, and that they by-gol­ly were going to fight if they had the right lead­er­ship and Adam was there to give the leadership.

So what hap­pened with the Health Care March last year? How did you get involved?

I didn’t go to Bel­haven last year and say, Oh I’m here I’m going to march with you.” I just went with Rev. Bar­ber to get the walk kicked off and we were doing what­ev­er orga­niz­ing we could to make it a suc­cess. I remem­ber it was July, 101 degrees, mid­dle of the day. It was about the dumb­est thing you could pos­si­bly do. We had a press con­fer­ence with Rev. Bar­ber and Adam and all of the peo­ple want­i­ng to get the hos­pi­tal back. So I just set off with the others.

And I didn’t plan to go on the whole thing, but after the sec­ond day they were down to like 2 peo­ple or 3 peo­ple, and pret­ty soon it was just me and Adam. And we’re walk­ing along and it’s me, and Adam, and Adam’s moth­er, Pam. Three peo­ple, way out in the mid­dle of nowhere. We got treed by some dogs one time. We got stopped on this back road and we couldn’t get past the dog. But any­way, Adam he says to me, Bob, why are you still here?” He was think­ing it would just be him and his moth­er now, walk­ing on the march. And I said, Well, two march­es in my whole life that I know of that were sin­gle peo­ple march­ing. And one was William Moore, post­man from Bal­ti­more march­ing in Alaba­ma — he was shot and killed. And James Mered­ith march­ing by him­self in Mis­sis­sip­pi was shot and could’ve been killed.” And I said, I’m just not going to, no mat­ter what is going on out there, what­ev­er things I have going on, and the fact that my feet are total­ly destroyed, I’m going to be here with you, you know, for the duration.”

Bob Zell­ner (left) and May­or Adam O’Neal at the Ral­ly to Save Rur­al Hos­pi­tals in Wash­ing­ton D.C. (Pho­to: Kairos Center)

What hap­pened after the Walk last year?

Well, we’ve had some real vic­to­ries. They’ve got the hos­pi­tal back now [in Bel­haven], but now comes the point of hav­ing to crank it up again. They had done a lot of dam­age to the build­ing. They intend­ed to bull­doze the build­ing but we got a tem­po­rary restrain­ing order to stop them from destroy­ing the build­ing. And all the peo­ple of Bel­haven now are ready to come as wit­ness­es. We’re hop­ing to get 10 mil­lion dol­lars now from Vidant to open up the hos­pi­tal in Belhaven.

What’s been Vidant’s response?

They’ve revert­ed to some of the old tac­tics, which have back­fired on them bad­ly. They’ve said that may­or Adam is a favorite now on Moscow tele­vi­sion, that he was on some kind of Russ­ian pro­gram and that Al Jazeera has been cov­er­ing him and the Guardian, the well known rad­i­cal news­pa­per in Britain has been, too.

So they’re red-bait­ing. But red-bait­ing doesn’t work in the same way that it used to work now. And peo­ple say Well they must be pret­ty des­per­ate if they’re accus­ing Adam O’Neal of being a com­mu­nist.” And they’ve tried to under­mine him in the com­mu­ni­ty, but peo­ple know him too well. And he’s just that kind of guy, he’s just there and he con­tin­ues to work with people.

What was the idea behind this year’s walk?

Well, Adam went last year to the nation­al con­ven­tion of the Asso­ci­a­tion of Rur­al Hos­pi­tals, a thou­sand hos­pi­tals around the coun­try. And he found 283 oth­er hos­pi­tals around the coun­try that are clos­ing, about to close, or just closed. And so at that meet­ing, he had said the idea came to him to have a reprise of the march from Bel­haven to D.C., but this time make it nation­al. And he said we want a rep­re­sen­ta­tive, a walk­er from each state, because there’s one or two of those hos­pi­tals that are clos­ing in every state. Most of them are in the South but many of them are in the North.

The Walk arrives in Wash­ing­ton D.C. on June 15, 2016. (Pho­to: Kairos Center)

And I mean it’s cold and cyn­i­cal and peo­ple will die. What Adam says is if 283 hos­pi­tals close around the coun­try for sim­i­lar rea­sons, 2,800 peo­ple a year will die unnec­es­sar­i­ly, which is like a 911 every year, for the next 25-to-30 years. And it costs less to keep these hos­pi­tals open, than it will to close them — the long run expens­es of clos­ing them will be much greater. The dete­ri­o­ra­tion of the health, the chron­ic dis­eases and all these things that peo­ple deal with. If you’re not close to a hos­pi­tal, you’re not going to go get help for your dia­betes or oth­er prob­lems until it’s so bad that you have to go to the emer­gency room at the big hospital.

Call­ing out the immor­tal­i­ty” of the cur­rent system

From June 1 to 15, the Kairos Cen­ter joined the Walk From NC to DC, a 283 mile march from Bel­haven, N.C., to Wash­ing­ton, D.C., to save 283 rur­al hos­pi­tals that are being threat­ened or sched­uled to close across the coun­try. We met up with Bob, May­or O’Neal, Rev. Bar­ber, and lead­ers from Ten­nessee, Texas, Wash­ing­ton, West Vir­ginia, North Car­oli­na and more who were com­mit­ting them­selves to the right to health care and to save these hospitals.

The Walk was a clear expres­sion of the prob­lems fac­ing our soci­ety today, and the kinds of respons­es that are sore­ly need­ed, espe­cial­ly around our right to health care. Indeed, a human right to health care isn’t lim­it­ed to ques­tions of prof­itabil­i­ty or even afford­abil­i­ty. Instead, it asks whether we are meet­ing the health care needs of our fam­i­lies, chil­dren, vet­er­ans, and broad­er com­mu­ni­ties and if not, how we can and must do so. In this way, the Walk from NC to DC was an expres­sion of what a New Poor People’s Cam­paign for Today looks like — bring­ing peo­ple togeth­er across race, age, and geog­ra­phy to raise the ques­tion of how we meet our most basic human needs in a time of plenty.

The pow­er of this moment is in the peo­ple who are call­ing out the immoral­i­ty of the cur­rent sys­tem and demand­ing that we seize the oppor­tu­ni­ties made pos­si­ble today. And while we walked for rur­al hos­pi­tals, we all know that this is only the beginning.

This inter­view was orig­i­nal­ly post­ed on the Kairos Cen­ter web­site and is repost­ed on Rur­al Amer­i­ca In These Times with per­mis­sion. Kairos works to strength­en and expand trans­for­ma­tive move­ments for social change that can draw on the pow­er of reli­gions and human rights. 

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Shail­ly Gup­ta Barnes is the Pro­gram Man­ag­er at the Kairos Cen­ter and part of the Rights and Reli­gions pro­gram area. Orig­i­nal­ly from Chica­go, she has a back­ground in law, eco­nom­ics and inter­na­tion­al devel­op­ment and has spent the past 10 years work­ing with and for poor and mar­gin­al­ized com­mu­ni­ties in var­i­ous capac­i­ties. She earned a B.A. in Eco­nom­ics from the Uni­ver­si­ty of Chica­go (1999), a J.D. from UCLA School of Law (2002), and an M.I.A. from Columbia’s School of Inter­na­tion­al and Pub­lic Affairs (2009). Shail­ly has two awe­some chil­dren with Adam Barnes and lives in New York City.
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