Special to SEGAZINE
At the end of August, Charlton County closed its debt-ridden hospital.
Pam Renshaw has paid a painful price for the closing.
About 2 p.m. Oct. 15 Renshaw rolled her four wheeler and landed in a bonfire. Her boyfriend, Billy Chavis, found her and, in his words, “put her out.”
Chavis says he cannot remember with certainty if he dialed 911.
“I thought I did. Maybe I just didn’t press send. I was really scared,” he said. “She was horribly burned. This still feels like a terrible, terrible nightmare.”
With the hospital shuttered and 911 not reached, Chavis did the only thing he could think to do. He loaded Renshaw into his truck drove her to the EMS station in Folkston.
But no one was there, nor were there any ambulances.
Chavis crossed the street to the sheriff’s office seeking help. It was there that deputies informed him that all of the county’s ambulances were in St. Marys, transporting others to the closest hospital.
So they waited. Eventually, an ambulance and its crew of EMTs made it back to Folkston. EMTs took one look at Renshaw and called for an airlift.
“They loaded her in the emergency vehicle and took her to the airport. That’s when they gave her the first bit of morphine,” Chavis said.
It was close to 3:30 p.m., nearly an hour and a half had passed. In that time Renshaw was not seen to by one medical professional or administered any pain killers.
Renshaw was airlifted to Shands in Gainesville. had sustained second- and third-degree burns on 45 percent of her body. She has undergone numerous skin grafts and has more in her future. She was not brought out of sedation until last week.
“This past Sunday is the first she has really started recognizing people and saying anything,” Chavis said.
“It’s just a bad situation all around,” said county administrator Al Crace, referring to Renshaw’s accident. “You know cell phone coverage is pretty spotty throughout the county. It can be hard to get ahold of people.”
That is the most like explanation for why Chavis could not reach 911, he said.
Sheriff Dobie Conner has said there were no missed calls to 911 in the county that day.
Crace explained that the county took control of the ambulance service from the hospital in May. The county currently operates three ambulances. Two are kept in Folkston and one in St. George, 23 miles away.
“We just aren’t set up to receive people at the EMS station. That is just where we park the ambulances,” he said. “We have mutual aid agreements with neighboring counties, and they are always willing to lend a hand with their emergency services.”
Crace didn’t know whether surrounding counties were called the afternoon Renshaw was injured.
“That would be a question for the sheriff’s office,” Crace said. The sheriff’s office did not return calls seeking comment.
Renshaw’s family remains concerned for the state of emergency services in Charlton County.
The hospital authority said it had no option but to close with a debt that had grown past $5 million and patient census in the single digits.
Renshaw’s sister Yvonne Hallman said, “We wanted to see the hospital stay. I still worry because my mom lives in the county, too. It’s too late to change anything in the county for my sister. But maybe they can do something to keep this from happening to someone else.”
But Charlton County’s situation is not unique.
EMTs in several Southeast Georgia have long runs to hospitals — 30 miles or more is common.
In Brantley County, for example, patients are driven to the Mayo Clinic in Waycross or Southeast Georgia Health System’s hospital in Brunswick.
Other small counties, Atkinson County among them, have more choices, but the miles are just as long.