RALEIGH — Inside an ambulance in a high school parking lot, paramedics worked frantically to keep 48-year-old Portia Gibbs from succumbing to cardiac arrest while they waited for a helicopter to pick her up and fly to a hospital in Virginia.
Paramedics would later tell Gibbs’ husband that they revived her five times during the 90 minutes it took for the helicopter to come into sight. Ultimately, she never made it to the hospital.
Her husband and area leaders say the closure this summer of a hospital in neighboring Beaufort County has pushed emergency-room care out of their reach. While it’s impossible to know whether Portia Gibbs would have survived if the local emergency room had been open, there’s no question she could have been taken there in much less time than it took for the helicopter to arrive.
Vidant Pungo Hospital in Belhaven had closed July 1, six days before Portia Gibbs, who had juvenile onset diabetes, suffered cardiac arrest.
For years, the small hospital in Belhaven had served the lightly populated area of mostly swamp and marsh that borders the Pamlico Sound. But despite efforts of community leaders to save it — including a proposal to let the community operate the hospital — Pungo closed. After it closed, the mayor walked from Belhaven to Washington, D.C., to draw attention to his area’s lack of a hospital.
Barry Gibbs and his wife’s doctor believe her odds of survival would have been much better if she could have gone to the hospital. Officials with the company that closed the hospital argue that the ambulance offered a similar level of care as the Pungo emergency room.
“We don’t know if she would have survived,” said Dr. Charles Boyette, Gibbs’ doctor since she was a teen. “But she didn’t have the opportunity.”
On July 7, Portia Gibbs had chest pains while sitting on her front porch, so her husband rushed her to the EMS station about 15 minutes away in Swan Quarter.
“When I got to the end of the road, about two minutes from the EMS place, she fell over on me,” Barry Gibbs said. He had stopped once by the side of the road because Portia Gibbs had to throw up; after that, he told her to roll down the window because he couldn’t risk another delay.
Had her trouble occurred a week earlier, the ambulance could have driven Portia Gibbs about 30 miles from Swan Quarter to the hospital in Belhaven. Instead, emergency workers took her to Mattamuskeet High School to wait for the helicopter, which came in sight about 90 minutes after the Gibbs arrived at the EMS station.
“Right before the helicopter got there, the paramedic came off the ambulance and told me, ‘Barry, we done all we can do. The only thing we can do is just let her go in peace’” Barry Gibbs said. “They said they brought her back five times and that she was a fighter and she was trying to make it.”
He got one more look at his wife in the ambulance then went home to tell the children — 17-year-old Ashley and 24-year-old Justin — that their mother had died.
Barry Gibbs said his wife loved to dance and sing, and it broke her heart when she couldn’t dance any more because of pain in her feet from diabetes. Even though it was struggle, she still enjoyed working in her garden, where she was working just before the chest pains started. She was resting on the front porch because her blood sugar had dropped, and her husband brought her a honey bun.
Vidant Pungo was not a level-one trauma center so Portia Gibbs would have been transferred elsewhere after treatment in its emergency room, said Roger Robertson, president of Vidant Community Hospital.
“What would be provided at Pungo wouldn’t be a lot different from what you get” from an EMT, he said.
Studies show that the sooner a patient in acute trauma sees a doctor, the better off she is, Boyette said. “You can save lives on the run, but you have a higher percentage of success . with a staff who are capable of handling these conditions on a day-by-day, hour-by-hour basis,” he said.
The hospital closure angered the community, and it tried to find another model to keep the facility open. Belhaven Mayor Adam O’Neal walked more than 200 miles to Washington, D.C., to protest the closure.
“Profits are more important to them than lives,” O’Neal said at a news conference after he arrived in Washington.
Vidant officials say operating losses of $5.7 million since 2011 and the need to replace the aging building were two of the main reasons for the closing. State officials’ refusal to expand Medicaid under President Barack Obama’s health care law also was a factor, but not the main reason for the closing, Robertson said.
Vidant took over Pungo District Hospital in 2011, paying off $1.6 million in existing debt.
Vidant Health System, which operates eight hospitals in eastern North Carolina, has a 24-hour clinic in Belhaven and plans to open a multi-specialty clinic within 18 months after zoning issues are settled.
“As a physician and somebody who works in health care, the death of any patient is devastating for the families and the caregivers,” said Dr. Mark Rumans, chief medical officer for Vidant Health System. “ ... Once again, our hearts go out to the family.”
Boyette can tick off a list of people whose lives were saved in the Pungo emergency room, such as the minister who suffered a severe heart attack or the nurse who broke her neck in a head-on collision. Doctors stabilized both patients, who were transferred to other hospitals.
“Those are the stories that make an ER worthwhile,” Boyette said.