Mississippi mother & unborn child die due to no available 24-hour emergency care in their rural city
BELZONI, Miss. (WLBT) - Rural hospitals in Mississippi are disappearing at an alarming rate.
Half of those hospitals in the state are at risk of closing and 6 others closed over the past decade. The lack of health care has left many in the underserved and uninsured populations in jeopardy.
Belzoni is known to many as the “Heart of the Delta.” More than 2,000 people live here, but there is not one hospital. The one that was here closed around eight years ago.
This has had a devastating effect of residents, including the Stribling family.
“This has been very difficult for me because it’s such a pain. I have never experienced numb pain,” said Byron Stribling.
“It was heartbreaking,” said Vonetta Shenelle Burks.
Byron Stribling and his mother-in-law are filled with emotion and grief while talking about losing the love of their lives, Harmony Stribling.
Harmony was Stribling’s wife and Burks’ daughter. “She had a big heart and she loved a lot,” said Burks. Harmony was so excited to share that love with her unborn child.
She and Stribling were preparing to give birth to their first baby girl, a journey she even documented on social media.
“The hope or her coming, even at the baby shower, her name was already inscribed on the gifts they were giving. They were already saying Harper, Harper, Harper. Especially people in the community, people out-of-state. She had, like, 4,000 followers on Facebook and on Instagram,” said Burks.
The excitement and preparation came to a screeching halt July 5 of this year.
“I would say between 12:30 and 1 a.m., she came in the room and complained about chest pain. It’s not to talk about anybody or any kind service, but the majority of the people who live in Humphreys County know that if you call the ambulance, with us not having actual emergency rooms here, it usually takes a while,” said Stribling.
So, Stribling decided to drive his wife to the nearest hospital located in next town, Yazoo City. He says during the 20 to 30-minute drive, Harmony’s condition got worse.
“She was having a seizure or a heart attack while I was driving. I called 911 and they were telling me that she needed immediate oxygen, so they needed me to pull over right then and start CPR. I was on the side of the road in the dark and cars passing by. It still took the ambulance about 10 to 15 minutes to get there, so she was pretty much gone by the time the ambulance made it,” said Stribling.
Harmony and Harper died on July 5, four days before her delivery date.
Byron Stribling, co-owner and director of a funeral home, was left with the difficult job of burying his own wife and daughter.
“Losing the loved ones the way I lost my loved ones, I wouldn’t wish this on my worst enemy,” he confessed.
Stribling and Burks believe Harmony and Harper would have more of a fighting chance if there was a hospital in Belzoni.
“My mother-in-law said that one of the nurses told her that if my wife would have had oxygen sooner, my daughter would’ve survived and it’s a possibility [Harmony] would’ve survive.”
“We’re not asking for things that we don’t need. We are asking for necessities. Emergency care is a necessity,” said Burks.
“This area where we are is the old Humphreys County Memorial Hospital,” said Belzoni Mayor Joe Jackson.
3 On Your Side reached out to Jackson to find out what happened to the city’s hospital.
“It closed around 2013. It was under new administration,” he explained. “The new administration was here and whatever happened with the hospital caused it to close.”
There are two small healthcare clinics in town. Jackson says these recent deaths magnify the need for 24-hour health care. “I feel like every life should matter equally.”
According to a national report by Navigant on rural hospitals, 31 (or 48 percent) of Mississippi’s 64 rural hospitals are at “high financial risk” of closing.
“The numbers are definitely sobering for Mississippi,” said Mississippi Rural Health Association Executive Director Ryan Kelly.
He admits that it will be challenging to open and operate a big hospital in Belzoni right now because of money, the economy, and their small population. He says there are other realistic options that could help residents.
“The economics don’t lend themselves to having a full-scale hospital as we normally think of, but there are a lot of opportunities to having a hospital in a town like Belzoni. There’s a model being explored right now called a ‘freestanding emergency room’ that doesn’t necessarily have inpatient beds, but it would have the emergency triage that you are really looking for in a situation like this. There are always opportunities for a 24-hour emergency care clinic or health care clinic.”
The mayor agrees, but also points out the need for funds and investors.
Jackson said, “The county doesn’t have the funds, the city doesn’t have the funds, so we’re going to need some help from the legislature.”
Senator David Blount is part of the legislative team. He believes the answer to creating and protecting rural hospitals is voting to expand Medicaid during this upcoming session.
“Mississippi has turned down $1 billion a year, every year since the Affordable Care Act was passed,” he said.
Keep in mind, Republican Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves has not supported expanding Medicaid - citing future costs of such an expansion.
“The result is 200,000 people who are working in jobs that don’t have health insurance, don’t have health care, don’t have access to health care. Rural hospitals, when they treat those patients can’t get reimbursed, can’t get reimbursed. That’s what Medicaid expansion is about,” said Blount.
“I am willing to fight for it because we need it,” said Burks about healthcare in rural areas.
The Stribling family says any solution to provide around-the-clock healthcare is something they will support.
Their mission now is to save lives, so no one would have to go through the pain they are experiencing.
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