Pungo Hospital Died a Violent Death

This was the front of the hospital where the flag pole and bricks with names of donors displayed.

 This is what Pungo Hospital looks like right now after demolition began three days after Christmas on Wednesday, December 28th. It is reminiscent of photos from war zones. I didn’t realize a demolition could look this violent and messy. I’ve never seen a demolition site like it. This looks like a gutting.

When I got word that the demolition started just minutes after Judge McGuire ruled against the town of Belhaven and in favor of Pantego Creek LLC to demolish the building after the case had moved to North Carolina’s business court. (I didn’t even know there was such a thing as business court.)

Headed by Mayor Adam O’Neal and a committed group of citizens from Belhaven and Hyde County, the town of Belhaven had been trying to buy the property from Pantego Creek LLC (an entity that was formed out of the old community hospital board members to oversee the transition to Vidant) to reopen the hospital as a community hospital. It opened in July, 1949 as a community hospital with money raised by the people in the town of Belhaven with matching federal funds made available through Hill-Burton Act. At the end of 2011, Vidant Health had acquired Pungo Hospital promising to invest in and maintain the hospital. Within less than two years, Vidant announced that it would close the hospital citing financial loss.

The fight to keep the hospital open and then later to reopen the hospital began the day Vidant announced its plans to close the hospital in September, 2013 without consulting anyone in town including Mayor O’Neal. Soon Rev William Barber, President of NC NAACP, was by Mayor O’Neal’s side fighting to save the hospital. They would work closely together over three years filing lawsuits, participating in a mediation with the Justice Department, and organizing grassroots actions including two walks from Belhaven to Washington, DC asking for federal help, and a walk to Raleigh asking for laws to be changed so that the town could acquire a certificate of need for the hospital.

Through the fight, Vidant, closely with four managers of Pantego Creek LLC, convinced many residents in the area that the hospital was not viable. The fate of the hospital divided the people in the town because some sided with Pantego Creek LLC/Vidant and some sided with Mayor O’Neal and the NC NAACP.

People lost life-long friends over the hospital. Belhaven, once a sleepy coastal town with pleasant and friendly people, became a place where people resorted to near-violent actions and plenty of salty language.

It’s clear why Vidant wanted to close Pungo. It owns eight hospitals in the region and closing one reduces the overhead and most of the people in the area have to go to one of their hospitals. It’s not clear why the LLC managers and so many in the town believed Vidant that the hospital was not viable.

The town council of Belhaven consulted with several healthcare experts who analyzed the facts and determined that there was a viable path to maintaining the hospital mostly by significantly reducing the number of beds and staff. The LLC managers refused to even review these reports and business plans sometimes claiming that they were never given a copy of these plans (contrary to facts). Not only did the town come up with a viable business plan vetted by third party experts, but it also got a federal USDA loan of 6 million dollars to reopen the hospital.

I had a dream last night that I was looking at the demolition site with Dr. Charles Boyette, the beloved town doctor who served the area from 1964 until he passed away in March, 2016. I had interviewed him a number of times during the three-year fight to save Pungo Hospital from closing. In my dream, Dr. Boyette looked at the demolition site and said, “This looks like a patient that went through a violent death. This was not a peaceful death. This can’t be undone.”

I woke up and prayed for the people of Belhaven and Hyde County who depended on Pungo Hospital. The people in Hyde County are 1–2 hour drive (weather permitting) from the closest emergency room — much of it on two-lane roads with no street lights. I’m devastated with grief.

On September 11, 2014, the late Dr. Charles Boyette led a tour of the closed Pungo Hospital for me (StoryofAmerica.org) and Brendan King, a reporter at WITN. His life was dedicated to his patients and Pungo Hospital:

All photos by Jack Keller/StoryOfAmerica.org

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Annabel Park

Annabel Park is the founder of Save Main St, a documentary filmmaker and an activist.