Aging baby-boomers, a retiring workforce, and a growing population are driving up the demand for health care providers. It may be an impending problem for some areas. But in certain rural communities, this has long been their reality.
Residents of Glades County have been dealing with a doctor shortage for decades. The county has a new doctor –and he’s its only one.
Sitting on the exam table in Dr. Edu Kirindongo’s office, Bessie Hernandez explains to him why she’s here.
“First I started sneezing. Then I started having a runny rose. Then I started coughing. I woke up this morning and it’s really hard to breathe. So I was like, ‘Well, let me go to the doctor before I get too much worse,’” she said.
It’s been a while since Hernandez had that option. She lives in Moore Haven, the only city in Glades County.
“There’s the health department that has doctors that are contracted in. But other than that, there are no other doctors in Glades County. He’s the only one,” said Hernandez.
Dr. Edu Kirindongo runs a family medicine clinic in Moore Haven. He previously worked in West Palm Beach for 17 years.
“Medicare basically put me out of business. I was looking for employment,” said Kirindongo.
“We just started here in October of last year and right now we’re seeing things get a little bit better.”
The owners of the clinic also established a pharmacy last spring. It’s the first time the county has had a private doctor’s office and a pharmacy since the 1950s.
“Historically, Glades County has had some difficulty attracting and retaining physicians. It’s been kind of a revolving door situation,” said Tracy Whirls, Executive Director of the Glades County Economic Development Council.
“We’ve been able from time to time to recruit physicians into the community, but for one reason or another they relocated.”
Glades County borders the western shore of Lake Okeechobee. Its one city Moore Haven is home to about 1,700 people. The rest of the county’s 12,000 residents are scattered over 800 square miles. Whirls says this makes Glades County less attractive to private doctors.
“We’re an underpopulated rural area. There’s kind of a perception that there’s not a large client pool here to serve,” she said.
But that’s not exactly the case.
Residents, like Bessie Hernandez, have gotten used to dealing with the lack of health care providers.
“Prior to him opening his facility here, I would just go to the ER or work it through my system myself,” said Hernandez.
“My family, thank goodness, wasn’t sick a lot. I mean, there are people in this area that have a lot of health issues.”
--like James Grego. He is holding his weekly yard sale outside of his trailer home in Moore Haven. Grego moves past a refrigerator, a keyboard, and a butterfly catcher on his motorized wheelchair. He now uses one, because he’s unable to get his diabetes under control.
“I’m losing my legs. I’m getting used to it, [but] it’s still a traumatic experience,” said Grego.
“I got nobody here who can help me. Even with the wound on the back of my leg. I got it caught on the chair.”
Grego has been going to the new clinic, but his conditions require more care.
“We don’t have the resources like we do in a major city. We don’t have specialists here and for tests we have to refer out,” said Kirindongo.
The closest hospitals are 16 miles away in Clewiston or 30 miles away in Labelle. Hernandez says transportation is an issue for a lot of residents.
"People beg, borrow, and steal to get somebody to take them to a doctor,” she said.
“They either have to pay somebody to carry them and depending on who it is they charge them five to ten bucks to carry them out there and go back to get them.”
Tony Miracle is a nurse at the Glades and Hendry County Health Departments. He says the lack of providers affects the health of people living here.
“If they can’t get in to see a doctor, especially in the early goings of their illness, their conditions just worsens. It makes them farther behind when they finally do get in. It’s hard for them to get better,” said Miracle.
The longtime physician at the Glades County Health Department retired seven years ago. Since then, Miracle says it has been a struggle to bring in doctors to see patients.
“They are working on it. They’re actively recruiting and hope to meet the needs of the population,” he said.
Kirindongo says he hopes he can sustain his private practice here.
“Our fear is basically not getting the support that we need, not only physically but financially. That’s going to be crucial for us staying open, said Kirindongo.
“Certainly we realize that patients and this community needs more and more care.”
But his arrival comes in the midst of a series of recent blows to Moore Haven. The only grocery store just shut down and the local Bank of America branch is closing.
Tracy Whirls from the Economic Development Council says the arrival of a doctor’s office and pharmacy is significant and could help turn things around.
“All boats rise with the tide,” said Whirls.
“I think it’s very hard to call yourself a community when you don’t have the basic services that go into giving a community its identity. A post office, a grocery store, a doctor’s office… just the things that you automatically think of when you think of a small town in the United States.”
Resident Bessie Hernandez has lived in Moore Haven since 1981. Like others here, she says she hopes this doctor succeeds and keeps practicing in Glades County.