When a former emergency room doctor in Grants Pass started having a heart attack on the way to the Southern Oregon coast earlier this month, the reality of the COVID-19 pandemic struck home.
Dr. Martin Hill, a longtime ER doc at Asante Three Rivers Medical Center, started showing signs of heart attack during a stopover in a Grants Pass motel, so his wife, former Josephine County Commissioner Cherryl Walker, dialed 911 to summon an ambulance.
That’s where their trouble began.
"We don’t have any ambulances available," the 911 dispatcher told Walker. "You will have to wait until one is available. There are people ahead of you."
Walker didn't wait. She drove her husband straight to the emergency room at Asante Three Rivers Medical Center, where Hill had worked for many years.
"We were just lucky he was able to walk to the car," Walker said during an interview Sunday night. "If someone was bleeding from a serious injury or couldn't breathe — they could die."
The medical staff at Three Rivers stabilized Hill, but with no beds or rooms available, he spent the night on a gurney in the ER "because the hospital was full of COVID-19 patients," Walker said. "In fact, 17 of the 30 beds in the ER had non-COVID patients waiting to be admitted to the hospital."
She said the hospital was canceling nonemergency surgeries and "started using the 'pre-op' rooms as a place to put patients like my husband."
An angiogram was performed on Hill the following day, and he was transferred to Rogue Regional Medical Center in Medford, where he underwent a successful stent surgery. Walker said RRMC was also "full of COVID patients and short-staffed."
The couple are now home in Lake Oswego, recovering from their ordeal.
Hill, a board-certified emergency medicine physician who worked in Grants Pass emergency rooms from 1978 until he retired a few years ago, is uniquely qualified to assess the medical care patients are currently receiving at Three Rivers.
Hill and Walker expressed admiration for how "the staff was coping with the extreme circumstances and lack of room availability. It's such a difficult situation. They're all heroes, they're all working so hard over there."
Now, the couple feel compelled to share their experience, "not to complain about the medical care — because it was excellent — but to shine a bright light on what caused these problems.“
Walker took to Facebook during the emergency to let friends and family know what they were facing during a potentially life-or-death situation.
"Our medical system is overwhelmed with people who won’t get vaccinated or wear masks," Walker wrote. "Their selfish decisions are causing other sick and injured people to be put at risk because the system is utterly overloaded."
She also believes children and those unable to receive the vaccine for medical reasons "could be better protected if most everyone else would get the vaccine."
Hill said during an interview Sunday that he's frustrated by people who say the vaccine is too new and untried.
"This technology has been researched and tested for more than 20 years, so when the vaccine was needed, efforts focused on utilizing this mRNA technology. This large bank of knowledge was quickly dialed in on COVID-19. But the more this pandemic is prolonged, the more opportunity the variants have to mutate and become resistant."
Hill referenced the work of Dr. Paul Goepfert, director of the Alabama Vaccine Research Clinic at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, who publicly said that in his 30 years studying vaccines, he'd "never seen any vaccine as effective as the three COVID vaccines — from Pfizer, Moderna, and Johnson & Johnson — currently available in the United States."
Hill also said the three vaccines were each tested on more than 30,000 people, with studies concluding last June that "typical reactions were about the same as any other vaccine, maybe a bit of redness at the site or a mild reaction."
Walker, who served on the Josephine County Board of Commissioners from 2013 to 2016, and then, as the county's public health administrator until she and Hill retired in 2017, expressed concerns about how her successors are handling the pandemic, saying their reluctance to recommend vaccines — or to even support wearing masks — is probably contributing to the high levels of vaccine hesitancy in the county.
"In any crises that affect the citizens of their jurisdiction, it's incumbent upon elected officials to perform the leadership duties for which they were elected. That means protecting the public by following the directions of their own emergency management, public health and safety administrators. But with the failure of leadership which has apparently occurred in Josephine County, many more people will suffer and die than need to from a very preventable illness.
"My grandmother once told me she'd never want to return to 'the good old days' before vaccines, because our children were crippled from polio and died from chicken pox, measles and mumps.
"Now children are critically ill because too many adults — most of whom had their childhood vaccines — won't take this COVID vaccine," Walker said. "Well, it might be your loved one next, or even you, who can’t get an ambulance, a medic or a hospital bed. People are suffering and dying who shouldn't be."
Reach Illinois Valley freelance writer Annette McGee Rasch at email@example.com.