After the Storm: The Story of Two Medical Practices in Eastern NC

G & G Healthcare, Cerro Gordo

Running a medical practice in poor, rural eastern North Carolina is not easy, but for one physician it is the culmination of his dream. Family physician Melvin Gerald, MD, grew up near Whiteville in Columbus County, and returned in 1998 to open G & G Healthcare. For the last 20 years, it has been a constant struggle – to find fellow health care professionals willing to live and practice in the area; to make ends meet when 80 percent of his patients are on Medicaid; and to survive when devastating hurricanes destroy his offices. But Dr. Gerald is not giving up.

“I’m staying. That office in Cerro Gordo is my dream,” he says. Since he was a teenager, he knew he wanted to do something for his community. As a child, he remembers his mother seeking medical care and being “treated like dirt.”

“When we’d get there, we’d be in the back room where they kept the cleaning supplies and stuff like that. I decided well before I finished high school, that one day I was going to go to college and go to medical school and then I was coming back home to help people who deserved health care most. That was always in my mind,” Dr. Gerald recalls.

He made good on his promise, graduating from Morehouse College in Atlanta, receiving his medical degree and completing his residency at Howard University in Washington, D.C., and then earning his master’s degree in public health at Johns Hopkins University. When he returned to North Carolina as a family physician to establish G & G Healthcare in Cerro Gordo, Fair Bluff and Whiteville, Columbus County ranked last out of the 100 counties in the state in health indices, he said, noting that the needle has moved slightly in a positive direction since then.

But then Hurricane Matthew washed out his office in Fair Bluff in 2016; and just last month Hurricane Florence flooded out his practice in downtown Whiteville. With no flood insurance, Dr. Gerald estimates rebuilding will cost between $50,000 and $75,000. Money he doesn’t have. But more troubling to him is the many patients he saw in Whiteville who won’t be able to make the 15-mile trip to Cerro Gordo to be treated.

“Many practices in this area really don’t welcome Medicaid patients, unfortunately,” he said. “They will find it very difficult to be seen by any other providers. So, we’ve got more morbidity and more mortality. That’s what you’ll have.”

Once the water in the Whiteville office receded, Dr. Gerald and his two brothers, who serve as COO and CIO for the practice, got together to rip out the soaked flooring. They’re awaiting word from the insurance company on what they might recover. But they are not optimistic.

“I’m not sure we can afford to reopen that office. It’s been a drain. The whole endeavor,” Dr. Gerald said. “It never made a whole lot of money, but we provided services and I think we’ve impacted the health care of the county significantly. I don’t know how long we can continue to do this and especially with disaster after disaster, things we can’t control.”

Video link: Dr. Gerald surveys the damage at his Whiteville practice on Thursday, Oct. 4.

_____________________________________________________________________________________________

Jessica Faircloth and Betty Van Swaim welcome patients at the makeshift reception desk outside Carolina Skin Vein.

Carolina Skin & Vein Center, Wilmington 

Four days before Hurricane Florence lashed Wilmington, Lois Beard Martin, DO, a dermatologist and owner of Carolina Skin & Vein Center, was seeing patients, completing skin cancer surgeries, taking biopsies — and hurricane-proofing her practice as much as possible before evacuating.

Two weeks passed before the water receded and the roads into Wilmington were passable again, allowing Dr. Martin to return to assess the damage to her office. It had been flooded out. The watermark running along the bottom of the walls shows that the floodwaters reached above the baseboards in spots. The flooring has already been ripped out; the sheet rock walls will need to be replaced. For now, dehumidifiers run constantly, the pans needing to be changed every few hours in an attempt to keep the mildew at bay, but already the cloying, moldy smell sticks in the nostrils.

But Dr. Martin, a solo practitioner, needed to continue seeing patients – for the sake of her business and the welfare of her patients. Racking her brain for alternatives, she had an epiphany. She phoned a family member in Ohio, who promptly made the 12-hour drive to Wilmington in their RV.

The 25-foot Palomino Puma now sits in the parking lot outside her office. A makeshift waiting area with two chairs, an end table and magazines is set up alongside. Jessica Faircloth answers the office phone — its cord snaking inside to the phone jack — sitting at a card table reception desk on the sidewalk outside the front door.

“Patients were lining up, saying ‘we’ve got to be seen,’” said nurse, Betty Van Swaim. While they can’t do surgery in the RV, “we can write a prescription, freeze a wart, do follow-up to surgeries,” she said.

The makeshift office space opened three weeks after Hurricane Florence and a steady stream of patients have been coming; patiently sitting in the breezy and humid outdoor ‘waiting room’ for the doctor to see them. Others have been calling insisting they need to be seen. Surgeries need to be performed.

Despite a waiver issued by US Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar before Florence hit, Dr. Martin is still waiting on approval from Medicare (70 percent of her patients are on Medicare) to change location and be paid for seeing patients.

Dr. Martin and her staff have been touched by the outpouring of support from her patients. However, her staff is becoming discouraged because its been three weeks of continued delay. “I need an answer from CMS,” Dr. Martin said.

She has reached out to her US Representative David Rouzer’s office where his assistant Pam Neville is trying to expedite the process. Now, to add to her stress, Hurricane Michael is bearing down on the state.

“I’m not giving up,” Dr. Martin said. “It’s hard enough as a small business owner after a natural disaster such as this, but the added bureaucracy and red tape makes it worse.”

Dr. Martin describes the impact of Florence on her practice.

 

The North Carolina Medical Society Foundation has established a Disaster Relief Program to help practices like Dr. Gerald’s and Dr. Martin’s. Learn more and please consider a donation.

Donate today.

 
 

Share this Post



 
 
 
 

Leave a Reply

The NCMS moderates this blog, so expect a slight delay in posting. Please include your full name and affiliation. We insist on respectful dialogue and reserve the right not to post remarks incompatible with our guidelines.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *