Local News

Airborne Doctors Make Long Distance House Calls

Posted February 11, 1999

— All of us in the Triangle are a short drive from some of the finest medical care in the world. But for people in more remote parts of our state, expert care is out of reach.

Some of the area's brightest medical minds are going airborne to reach those most in need.

It is 7 a.m. at UNC's Horace Williams Airport. An experienced doctor and a young doctor in residency are getting on board for a long distance house call.

It is a call that will take them hundreds of miles from Chapel Hill to the tiny town of Rutherfordton, nestled in the western North Carolina mountains.

Federal, state and local dollars pay for the Area Health Education Centers program.

The AHEC takes highly trained doctors from North Carolina's four medical schools and puts them in parts of the state that do not have the population or the hospitals to support expert medical care.

"Hey Colt, I'm Dr. Cotton. I'm a pediatric cardiologist. How are you doing?" asks Dr. John Cotton ofUNC Hospitals.

In his 12 years, Colt Flack has lived through two open heart surgeries. A leaky heart valve at birth kept him out of one year of school, and at his local doctor's advice, has kept him out of sports.

There is not a pediatric cardiologist in Rutherford County. But, the UNC cardiologist says young Colt can tryLittle League baseball.

What kind of things did the doctor say to him that made him feel better?

"Well, first of all, that I can play sports," said Flack.

It is hard to tell who is happier, Colt or his mom.

"He can play Little League. He's been wanting to do it for years. He can play Little League now. That'll be something," said Penny Flack.

Rutherford Countyis about as rural as rural gets in North Carolina. There are no major medical centers. The nearest high level care is hours away, but the AHEC program delivers high level care to places like this all over the state.

Dr. Willis Archer is one of the handful of doctors in Rutherford County. He lines up patients for UNC's AHEC doctors who fly in once a month.

"There are five of us doctors with two offices for a county of about 60,000 people. We have pretty much all we can take care of," said Archer.

With the family doctors stretched thin, the specialized care provided by the AHEC doctors becomes even more important, especially when dealing with tiny patients who have some big heart problems.

"These people have needs just as well as the people in the big metropolitan areas. I think we're able to provide them a service that they don't have locally, and it makes their lives a lot easier. It's a lot easier for me to fly here as opposed to having 19 patients like we saw today traveling back to Chapel Hill," said Cotton.

The AHEC doctors bring a lot of expertise to a remote spot of North Carolina.

They head home with a good dose of satisfaction, the satisfaction of serving a community that without them, might have gone unserved.

A fleet of six planes is ready to fly around the clock from UNC's Horace Williams airport. In nearly three decades of service, none of the planes has had an accident.

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