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A Brief But Spectacular take on being a rural area’s only doctor

Dr. Karen Kinsell is the only physician in Fort Gaines, Georgia, a town of 3,000 people, where 40 percent of residents live below the poverty line. Some of her patients can’t afford to pay her, but she says her office doesn’t turn anyone away, and there is no “bigger high” than that of saving lives. Dr. Kinsell offers her Brief But Spectacular take on being the only doctor in a poor rural area.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    As COVID-19 has overwhelmed health care systems around the globe, here in the U.S., there's an increasing concern hospitals won't have adequate supplies, staff, and beds to treat those who become seriously ill.

    In tonight's Brief But Spectacular, we visit Dr. Karen Kinsell. She's the only physician in Fort Gaines, Georgia, where she serves her town's 3,000 residents.

  • Karen Kinsell:

    I think a lot of people don't understand that not everyone in America has the ability to go to the doctor.

    Fort Gaines is in Clay County in Southwest Georgia. We have about 3,000 people. About 40 percent of the people are below the poverty level. I have been the only doctor here for 15 years. The next closest hospital and doctor in Georgia's 20 miles away.

    I have been called the last doctor in ®MDNM¯CLAY COUNTY. So when I die or leave or retire, whatever, does that mean that there really won't be a doctor here?

    Our office wasn't built as a doctor's office, and really shouldn't be a doctor's office. It was built as a Tastee-Freez in the 1950s. It has tremendous leaks in the roof. We literally keep out trash cans to catch water when it rains.

    We currently use the former freezer as a drug storage area. It's horrible. But we really don't have the resources to do anything different, and there really aren't any buildings in the county that are acceptable.

    There was one pharmacy in Clay County for the last 30 or 40 years, and it closed a year-and-a-half ago. Right now, it's about a 30-mile round-trip to pick up a pill. And as an internist, where our tools are pills, this becomes a very serious situation.

    Many of the specialists in this area won't even accept Medicaid patients. We frequently get involved in internal medicine, specialty care, endocrinology, rheumatology. That's absolutely outside my scope of expertise.

    I could probably get sued for it if something untoward happened. But this is the only way we know of to get people that care. We average between 25 and 30 patients a day. Often, people don't have access to transportation. People struggle every day to have food and gas.

    We ask for $10. If they can't afford that, we see them anyway. We don't turn anyone away. There's no point in me spending my time out here if I cannot go ahead and see everyone who needs to be seen.

    The pervasive poverty just affects people's view of the world. We recently had a grant and gave cameras to high school kids and asked them what they want to take pictures of. And what they chose were abandoned houses, because that's what represented Clay County to them.

    You know, like all doctors, I went to medical school, worked really hard, paid a lot of money to learn how to use the technology to help people live healthy, long lives.

    To be in a place like this, where you know what needs to happen, and you simply cannot get that for that person, that's devastating. You know, I have very deep roots in this community at this point.

    I know these people. To just up and leave would be very personally devastating for me, and I think would adversely affect the health care of people I see.

    I think I save lives by being here. And, I mean, that's tremendously rewarding. I mean, what bigger high could you have?

    My name is Dr. Karen Kinsell. This is my Brief But Spectacular take on being the only doctor in a poor rural area.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Dr. Kinsell, everybody like her, they are our heroes.

    And you can find all of our Brief But Spectacular segments online at PBS.org/NewsHour/Brief.

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