Eastern Kentucky floods damage health clinics, patients seek care

When the floodwaters receded, personnel from the Whitesburg Medical Clinic On Friday, overturned furniture, crumbling medical equipment, waterlogged files and computers, and more than a foot of mud and water were found inside.

But no employee lost their lives ― although some lost parentshomes and vehicles – and many went to work shoveling mud and cleaning floors and furniture to save at least a small part of the clinic in the small mountain town, the county seat of Letcher.

And on Saturday, patients were flocking to the clinic, some for treatment of injuries, but many seeking to replace medication they had left behind when they fled rapidly rising waters from last week’s catastrophic flash floods.

“People had to get out of their homes so quickly on their heart pills, things like that, that they had to leave behind,” said Mike Caudill, CEO of Mountain Comprehensive Health Corp., which operates clinics in Letcher, Perry, Owsley, Harlan and Bell counties. “They literally had to make the choice, what was more important to them, their life or their property.”

The flooding dealt a devastating blow to the “safety net” system of federally designated community health clinics throughout eastern Kentucky, which focus on medically underserved areas and low-income patients. In addition to primary health care, clinics provide behavioral health care, dental care, and social services.

They are a vital source of care for individuals throughout Kentucky, but especially in the eastern part of the state, said Molly Lewis, acting CEO of the Kentucky Primary Care Association.

“Eastern Kentucky is one of our most concentrated areas because there are so many medically underserved areas there,” Lewis said.

Those clinics are in the 13 counties designated as flood-hit areas, she said.

“We have clinics everywhere that have been affected,” Lewis said.

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Now clinic operators are scrambling to try to clean up and reopen or find alternative sites. They also need to replace equipment, supplies, medicine and other property lost in the flood. Some remain without electricity, water or telephone.

“We will be open, but we are literally using paper charts, stethoscopes and cell phones to try to care for people,” Dr Van Breeding, of the Whiteburg clinic, said in a statement. Facebook postin which he made an urgent call for supplies.

“Please if you are in the medical field and can help us please send help, we have lost our lab, x-rays, dental equipment and most clinical supplies but we are helping always our patients who have lost everything,” Breeding said.

The needs of their patients are acute, he said.

“The horrific stories of loss are extreme. We and the people we care for are in shock and near exhaustion. Please help in any way you can.”

Floodwaters rushed through the office of Mountain Comprehensive Health Corp., the Whitesburg-based community health system.

breeding wish list on Facebook included IV fluids, sutures, oxygen supplies, computers, portable x-ray equipment, wound care supplies, blood pressure cuffs and thermometers.

Caudill estimates that $2 million to $3 million worth of medical equipment was destroyed by flooding at the Whitesburg clinic alone.

The primary care association is racing to locate and ship needed supplies to its members in eastern Kentucky, Lewis said. He is also looking for volunteer medical workers from other parts of the state to help out at clinics and help pay for their accommodation costs.

While clinics routinely train in disaster response, the flooding has overwhelmed their capacity, she said.

“Nothing can prepare you for this,” she said.

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The association assembles goods including bleach, bottled water, shovels and cleaning supplies. It also sends medical equipment, such as examination tables donated by other establishments.

And the association is working to help locate and provide vaccines for tetanus and hepatitis A, both of which can be spread through contaminated water, Lewis said.

Oxygen and insulin are also in high demand, Lewis said.

Caudill said the Whitesburg office headquarters for his health care system is currently unusable due to floodwaters which swept away and destroyed records and equipment. A supply warehouse was also ransacked.

Floodwaters tore through a supply warehouse for Mountain Comprehensvie Health Corp.  in Whitesburg.

In Letcher County, a clinic in Isom was rendered unusable after being engulfed in more than six feet of water.

And a much-needed clinic in Buckhorn, Perry County, remains closed as power goes out and the remote area is inaccessible due to blocked roads, Caudill said.

Beshear said Saturday that workers are trying to clear and reopen roads leading to Buckhorn, which also includes a state park his administration wants to use as an emergency shelter.

State officials have pledged to deliver a generator to the Buckhorn clinic, which Caudill hopes to reopen soon. His health system is preparing portable air conditioners for use in clinics where air conditioning units have been destroyed by flooding as meteorologists warn of an impending heat wave.

Caudill predicts that it will be months before health facilities are repaired and restored. But he is sure it will happen.

“We have that,” he said. “It may take time, but we have this. We will get it. The good Lord blessed us. We didn’t lose any lives and that’s what’s important. The rest we can fix.

Contact Deborah Yetter at dyetter@courier-journal.com. Find her on Twitter at @d_yetter.

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