For more than a year, the Williamsburg Regional Hospital has been serving patients from a temporary facility located right next to their old building. The hospital was damaged beyond repair during the thousand-year floods. Eventually, the hospital determined that they had to move out of the old building. With a combination of insurance coverage and FEMA funding, they began their efforts to open first a temporary ER in the spring of 2016, followed by the temporary hospital later that year. South Carolina Public Radio's Laura Hunsberger talks with hospital officials and staff about the future of the county's hospital system.
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"It all happened that one night," says Engineering Director Sean Cottrell. In the deluge of rain, water overwhelmed the flat roof of the building and began to flow down through the hospital's walls. "I got here at 2:45. And at the front, at the red light out there, my car was underwater. I made it back here and when I walked in our dietary on the first floor, soup cans were floating, that’s how much water was in the place."
In the following months, hospital staff uncovered the extent of the damage to the building and made the decision to suspend services in February 2016. From there, they moved ahead with plans to open the temporary ER, which would provide a critical need for emergent care in the community until the temporary hospital could be opened and services. The temporary facilities, using a system of interlocking trailers, opened in December 2017. Sharon Poston, the hospital’s Chief Executive Officer, says the process has been full of setbacks.
“An individual believed this rumor that there were problems prior to the flood and we’ve had to continuously show that it is not true," says Poston. "So, that’s been the biggest battle with all this.”
Williamsburg Regional Hospital secured funding from FEMA through 6-month extensions that allow them to make payments on the lease for the temporary hospital and to support the facility’s day-to day operations. The next challenge is to build a new hospital in the area, which they anticipate could take until 2020. Dr. Troy Gamble, Chief Medical Officer for Williamsburg Regional Hospital, says the plan moving forward is to combine with Lake City Community Hospital in Florence, in a new building halfway between the two locations. He says this will allow them to cut back on duplication of services and provide higher quality care: "If you merge two hospitals that are barely surviving financially and put both populations together and serve them in a quality way, we believe that we can make it financially solvent.”
Keeping hospitals open in a rural area is a difficult business but badly needed. Since 2010, the state has seen three rural hospitals close. Poston says shuttering the Williamsburg Hospital system, which serves as many as 35,000 people, would have ripple effects on the region’s economy. "The county would suffer tremendously," Poston says. "Industry would suffer because there would be no hospital here to take care of them... And if the industry leaves or if the industry doesn’t come in, the county can’t survive."
Dr. Gamble says both hospitals are doing well for now and hopes they will break ground on the new hospital by the end of this year. They are close to raising all the money needed for the project--that is, within a few million of their $60 million goal for building the permanent hospital. In the meantime, hospital administrators have to resubmit paperwork to FEMA every six months to continue supporting the temporary facilities. Poston says she is concerned that if the new building takes too long, FEMA may eventually say no to continuing funding for the temporary facility. Gamble says he believes FEMA should and will continue to support the hospital’s recovery because of how important it is to the surrounding community.
"It doesn’t make sense to build a 7-million dollar temporary facility here and then not continue to fund it--especially when you’re talking about funding a facility for the least among us, if you will," says Gamble. "This is one of the poorest counties in the country, healthcare outcomes have traditionally been some of the poorest in the country." Since opening the temporary facility, patient outcomes have improved as staff us able to provide emergency care and take care of high-risk procedures with good results. With 22 beds (four are intensive care), the temporary facilities have all the services the hospital had before the flood. Gamble says the hospital is running at about 80% capacity most days and is busier than they’ve ever been.