Village Ambulance says its been handling the treks to Pittsfield and Bennington, Vt., since the closure of North Adams Regional Hospital.
WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — The demise of North Adams Regional Hospital, which was operated by Northern Berkshire Healthcare, ignited a fear of losing doctors and anxiety over where to turn in an emergency.
"We had an increase in walk-ins and phone calls," said Dr. Anthony Smeglin, president of the Williamstown Medical Associates and a pulmonary and critical-care specialist. "People were frightened. We don't have facilities for walk-ins and some people came in for information. We tried to help."
The hospital's closure last month also has been putting miles on local ambulances as they transport patients north up Route 7 to Southwestern Vermont Medical Center in Bennington or south to Berkshire Medical Center in Pittsfield.
The distance to those two hospitals is causing concern to the general public as well as to patients.
"We are seeing some anxiety in patients, but we assure them we have many of the advanced skills used in emergency departments," Shawn Godfrey, general manager of Village Ambulance Service, said.
"We get an average of 50 calls per week. Now about one in 10 patients is brought to SVMC."
A paramedic and emergency medical technician is in every ambulance responding to a call. And Godfrey explained that a EMT can provide basic life support — oxygen therapy, spinal immobilization, bandaging — anything not invasive.
Paramedics undergo a higher level of training and can stabilize patients — read electrocardiograms and administer 30 types of medications.
"We want community members in our first-response area to feel confident in our ability to take care of their calls," said Godfrey. "We have increased our staff since the closure of NARH and have four ambulances."
The service has 45 employees, with 13 paramedics working in shifts
Several factors are considered when deciding which hospital a patient should be delivered.
"Geographics and the patient's condition play a big part," he said. "If the patient is experiencing chest pains we go to the closest hospital. Some places in Williamstown are closer to SVMC, while other areas are closer to BMC. We encourage our staff not to sway patients regarding choice of hospital."
But once at the emergency room, patients often have to determine their own way home.
"We try to be compassionate," 13-year paramedic Raymond "Rick" Richer said. "Now, it's just a little bit longer ride, and we provide some interventions that are more prolonged."
Richer said the time lag is longer but "it's no burden. "
"Everything is going well. We radio the hospital first and when we get there they are waiting for us," he said. "Others coming in on their own may need to wait longer for medical attention. Doctors focus first on life-threatening conditions, so if you cut your finger, you may have to wait a while."
Williamstown Medical now greets callers to its offices at 197 Adams Road with a reassuring message: "Williamstown Medical Associates will not be directly affected by the closure of North Adams Regional Hospital. ..."
The associates also have offices in North Adams in the Ambulatory Care Center on the hospital campus that were not affected by the closure.
Founded in 1958, WMA became an affiliate of Berkshire Health Systems in 2012, and has a medical staff that includes seven physicians, four physicians assistants and two nurse practitioners.
"The sudden closure of NARH, left a void in our health-care facilities that cannot be immediately filled," said Smeglin. "We need time to develop our options."
As for patients who are hospitalized, Smeglin said, said doctors can communicate with both BMC and SVMC hospital by phone or through electronic medical records.
"There is a good transition. Berkshire Health Systems is taking care that the records are available," he said. "We are not electronically connected with Southwestern, however, but we get the information to them."
BHS has established a health-care hotline at 855-262-5465 for people with concerns about doctors, appointments, testing, etc. SVMC has arranged a number for the same purposes at 802-447-5007.
Getting to the hospitals for routine tests and other appointments is difficult if not impossible for some elderly residents who don't have cars or friends to drive them.
BCAC is offering shuttle rides leaving North Adams from the former Nassifs pharmacy on Ashland Streets with stops at Walmart and the Adams Big Y, arriving at BMC 10:30; the shuttle leaves BMC for the return trip at 1:15.
The local councils on aging will collect people to bring them to drop off site and pick them up in afternoon.
"Individuals can contact their local COA for assistance getting to/from the pickup in North Adams as needed," O'Grady wrote in an email.
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