Health crisis during a vacation getaway: How a dream trip can turn into a nightmare

Residents in smaller vacation communities reveal the challenges of getting needed health care

A "getaway" vacation home may help people escape the hustle and bustle of busy lives and nonstop routines — but when it comes to a sudden medical emergency or health condition requiring immediate treatment, what happens when access to adequate health care is limited or difficult at the getaway home?

Then what?

Judy Meringer lives on Shelter Island in New York. It's a small island that offers a rural peaceful retreat — and its population is just over 3,200 people, according to the 2020 census.  

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Tucked between the two forks of Long Island, the island is a vacation destination (as well as home) for scores of people. It's a roughly two-to-three-hour drive from New York City.

Some residents such as Meringer who either live or vacation in a small community such as this indicated they have a major health care dilemma on their hands: How do they get access to medical help in a timely manner, especially when there's a lack of specialists available in their area? 

How much do vacationers know about the hospitals or health care facilities in the areas to which they flock to "get away" from it all? Family members and patients shared concerns on this topic with Fox News Digital.  

How much do vacationers know about the hospitals or health care facilities in the areas to which they flock to "get away" from it all? Family members and patients shared concerns on this topic with Fox News Digital.   (iStock)

In an interview, Meringer told Fox News Digital that she has to wait months to see one of her specialists because the doctor's satellite office near the island is open only one day a week. His main office is quite some distance away.

"The doctors don’t want to be out here all the time," she said, "so that’s another three-month wait due to demand."

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Acquiring home health care services can be difficult, another resident told Fox News Digital, because not many practitioners want to travel to the area

"The doctors don’t want to be out here all the time … [There's] a three-month wait due to demand."

Some residents have dealt with this health care hurdle by moving closer to the city temporarily so that they can receive home care services from agencies with more staffing for important treatment. 

An individual named Gerry (who asked for his last name to be withheld) shared with Fox News Digital a horrific experience at a hospital near Shelter Island when his wife fractured her hip.  

When a doctor finally arrived to treat a woman with a hip injury, the physician was a general sports orthopedist — not a specialist in total hip replacement, which is what the family preferred. 

When a doctor finally arrived to treat a woman with a hip injury, the physician was a general sports orthopedist — not a specialist in total hip replacement, which is what the family preferred.  (iStock)

"We had to wait two days to see an orthopedist," he said. "My wife was heavily medicated, lying in a hospital bed, as we waited nearly two days for an orthopedist to physically come to the hospital to speak with us about the options."

Another family member said that when the doctor finally arrived, he was a general sports orthopedist — not a specialist in total hip replacements. 

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The doctor, however, announced he was competent to decide the course of care, the family member said. 

While they appreciated this might be the case, the family still preferred a physician who did total hip replacements regularly to determine the treatment for their mother.

"We'd all have to travel back and forth over two hours a day to visit her if we opted to send her to the hip replacement specialist in another town."

Unfortunately, there was no hip replacement specialist available on staff at that hospital at that point in time. 

"I was told my mother had to be transferred to another hospital in their system that was over an hour-and-a-half away and in an area that wasn't close to any family members," the individual told Fox News Digital. 

One family's health crisis occurred in a more isolated location than what they were used to — and revealed a sharp contrast in health care services.  

One family's health crisis occurred in a more isolated location than what they were used to — and revealed a sharp contrast in health care services.   (iStock)

"This meant we'd all have to travel back and forth for over two hours a day to visit her if we opted to send her to the hip replacement specialist in another town." 

The person added, "How are older family members" supposed to handle trips like this?

The family once resided in a more populated area on Long Island, the person said, where several hospitals have practices of orthopedic specialists on staff. These physicians specialize in hips, knees, shoulders, ankles and more. The family's health crisis in a more isolated location revealed a sharp contrast in services.  

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"Hospitals in vacation areas just don’t seem to have the staffing or the variety of specialists and experts readily available," the family member told Fox News Digital. 

"You are at the mercy of the luck of the draw regarding the type of doctor you receive that day when tragedy strikes."

Expanding the reach of graduate medical training

A demand for quality and accessible health care is not only an issue in one or two quaint areas of New York. Health care shortages exists in rural areas throughout the country, according to recent reports. 

"Just because you are on vacation doesn’t mean you don’t get sick."

A report on the American Medical Association website indicated that about one in five Americans lives in a rural community — and that "those areas face physician shortages across medical specialties," the report said. 

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Residency training institutions are trying to address the need with certain programs, such as Fully Integrated Readiness for Service Training (FIRST), which the report described as a project to expand the reach of graduate medical training across North Carolina.

Residents said they hope that hospitals in the U.S. will work with communities that serve as vacation destinations — both in-season and off-season — to implement plans to help boost staffing and recruit more specialists.

Residents said they hope that hospitals in the U.S. will work with communities that serve as vacation destinations — both in-season and off-season — to implement plans to help boost staffing and recruit more specialists. (iStock)

The project is still new, the report said — but at least three graduates decided to practice in rural areas after exposure to them during their residencies. The goal of the program is to encourage residents to pursue a rural track position, according to the AMA report. 

A study published in the Journal of Graduate Medical Education also found that family medicine residents who spent at least half their training in rural settings were at least five times more likely to practice in a rural setting than residents with no rural training.

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Residents told Fox News Digital they hope that hospitals in the U.S. will work with communities that serve as vacation destinations — both in-season and off-season — to implement plans to help boost staffing and recruit more specialists.

Patient advocates said it's important for those who visit or live in small vacation areas to research local resources — and to know how to access needed health care services. 

"Just because you are on vacation doesn’t mean you don’t get sick," one resident told Fox News Digital. 

Stony Brook Eastern Long Island Hospital (SBELIH) is one hospital that serves the Shelter Island community in New York — and told Fox News Digital in a statement that hospitals across the country have seen health care professionals leave the field due to the COVID-19 pandemic

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Officials from SBELIH said in the statement that recruitment has become a top priority. 

"The safety and well-being of our patients and staff remain our highest priorities at Stony Brook Eastern Long Island Hospital (SBELIH)," the hospital said in a statement. 

Some residents of Shelter Island, New York, said they hope new recruitment efforts will successfully convince health care practitioners to be more available to serve in their local communities.

Some residents of Shelter Island, New York, said they hope new recruitment efforts will successfully convince health care practitioners to be more available to serve in their local communities. (iStock)

"We proactively monitor and optimize staffing needs and make adjustments as necessary. Similar to many hospitals nationwide, we are increasing awareness for available nursing and laboratory technologist roles at SBELIH."  

The hospital is trying to actively recruit for roles, to optimize staff needs through job fairs, social media and employee and international recruitment strategies. 

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It added that hospital operations have not been impacted, according to thestatement. 

Some residents of Shelter Island told Fox News Digital that they hope these recruitment efforts will successfully convince health care practitioners to be more available to serve in their community. 

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Laurie Fanelli, a retired psychiatric nurse practitioner who helps manage the Shelter Island Senior Center, told Fox News Digital the group is helping residents of the small community navigate the challenges that come with small island living. 

The group is pooling resources about available help for home care needs and even driving residents as far as almost an hour away to a town with available health care specialists. 

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Patient advocates, meanwhile, said it's important for those who visit or live in small vacation areas to research local resources — and to know how to access needed health care services there.