SILVERTON – The cyclical availability of health care in this small mountain town is on the upswing again, an observer of more than 50 years said last week.
Lois MacKenzie, a registered nurse and the acting director of public health in San Juan County, said weekly visits since April of a family nurse practitioner from Mercy Regional Medical Center, has stabilized life for residents who need routine attention.
Patients are seen at the Miners Union Hospital which, at 106 years old, is itself in line for major surgery.
Agnes Eytchison, who works at the Mercy urgent-care clinic at Purgatory the rest of the week, sees residents at the Miners Union Hospital each Thursday.
“She sees patients from 8:30 a.m. until we run out of patients,” MacKenzie said.
Eytchison has seen as many as 15 in one visit.
“I’m here for well-adult maintenance,” Eytchison said. “I do primary care, and I also see children.”
Take Oct. 16, for example.
Kevin Gagnon, a fit construction worker and dedicated distance runner who’s done Kendall Mountain and the Run Rabbit Run 100, was in to check on his high cholesterol of all things.
Gina Rosato, a gift shop owner, needed something to counter allergy and cold symptoms. She has dizzy spells once in a while so being seen here saves her a drive over mountain passes to see a doctor.
Rusty Melcher, who works in an Ouray mine, has had a cut elbow treated. He also takes his children to the clinic for routine inoculations.
Tourists are referred to the Mercy urgent-care clinic at Purgatory.
The arrival of Eytchison means residents don’t have to take a day off work if either they or their children need to see a doctor, MacKenzie said.
While in Durango, San Juan County residents shop there, which cuts into the bottom line of local merchants, MacKenzie said.
As a child, MacKenzie saw birth and death at the hospital when her father, Ralph, was the resident physician from 1959-61. He died in an airplane crash in Alaska.
Since then, she has spent periods of five, 13 and 17 years in the mountain hamlet. She worked in schools and for three years was a nipper, or errand runner, in the Sunnyside Mine. She returned to school for her nursing degree at age 38.
Emergency medical service in this county seat of 500 population is first-rate, MacKenzie said. It’s everyday health care that hasn’t been consistent. Finding a doctor has been hit and miss.
A number of practitioners, from the even-handed to the eccentric, have provided primary care over the years, MacKenzie said.
The last resident physician was Dr. Robert Brokering. He staffed the clinic once a week for seven years, intermittently at the end, before ill health sidelined him in October 2013.
Six months later, Mercy took on the challenge.
“We’re fulfilling our mission of providing medical care to everyone in the region,” Paul Gibson, director of emergency services, said. “We expected to have someone there for four hours, but the community is under-served.
“I can’t say we’ll expand services, but there certainly is enough volume for once a week,” Gibson said. “We’ll be there for the foreseeable future.”
Other sources contribute to the effort. San Juan County provides free rent and utilities. Patients pay for any lab work, but also donate to the cause each visit according to their financial health, MacKenzie said.
MacKenzie gives flu shots, takes Pap smears and does strep-throat tests. She draws blood, which is sent via Kangaroo Express to the Durango-La Plata County Airport for shipment to laboratories in Denver or Phoenix for analysis. She gets the results by telephone, fax or email.
But without Eytchison to interpret the results and tell patients what it means, the work is meaningless.
“The clinic has been very positive,” County Administrator Willy Tookey said. “Otherwise, people lose a day if they have to go to Durango or Montrose.”
The three-story Miners Union Hospital will be upgraded in two phases, said project director David Singer, the principal of Silverton Restoration Construction.
Initially, the coal furnace, which heats only one half of the three-story building, will be upgraded; the roof will be repaired; an elevator will be installed; and bathrooms will be modernized, Singer said. Phase-two will be more cosmetic.
The Colorado Historical Fund and the Department of Local Affairs are giving a combined $370,000 in grants for the project.