Holding Onto Hope with Whitley Fowler

Whitley Fowler, Director of Laboratory Services at Lakeland Community Hospital in Haleyville, Alabama, shares her reaction to the sudden news that the hospital would be closing in late 2017. Thanks to a dedicated hospital staff, supported by a resilient community, Lakeland was able to implement a plan to stay open in early 2018.

In this episode, Fowler talks about the important role the hospital plays for the small, rural community and how much of a necessity it was for their continued survival.

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Transcript

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Whitney Fowler: It was like a bad dream, bad shock. “What are the people of this community going to do?” That was my first thought. That was everybody’s first thoughts. Yeah, we can find other jobs elsewhere, but what is our community going to do?

Host: You just heard from Whitley Fowler, the director of laboratory services at Lakeland Hospital. In November of 2017, when the owners of Lakeland announced the hospital would be closing, Whitley held out hope it would stay open. In this episode, she shares what was going through her mind in those tough months and the community’s reaction to the news.

Whitney: In the end, our mayor stepped up, our city council, Java. I mean, and they kept saying, “It’ll be a Christmas miracle.” Here we are, a year later, and we’re still here.

Host: This is Health IT on the Record, presented by MEDHOST, a show that explores how innovations in health and information technology impact every aspect of a health system, from multi-hospital networks down to individual patients. In a moment, Whitley will discuss the importance of Lakeland to her personally and to the Haleyville community. Enjoy the conversation.

Whitney: Hello. My name is Whitley Fowler. I’m the director of laboratory services here at Lakeland Community Hospital.

Host: Thank you so much for taking some time just to swing by here to share your story. Talk a little bit about what’s been happening here at Lakeland and what the story’s been here at the hospital: past, present. And we’ll start to talk a little bit about where things are going to the future. But before we jump into that, I would love to just paint a picture of you here. You’ve been in Lakeland for around nine years, right? And you’ve lived here your whole life?

Whitney: Correct.

Host: Did you come in here in the same kind of role you’re in today? How did you get involved?

Whitney: I did not. Coming in, I worked our sister facility in Russelville for six months. The lab manager here, actually, reached out to me. And he knew I was from here, lived here my entire life, and –

Host: People generally know each other here.

Whitney: Yes, but he was actually from somewhere else. My coworkers, actually, got me here. They were like, “Hey, she just graduated. She’s five minutes down the road.” So here I am.

Host: Right. So when was it when you became director of laboratory services?

Whitney: A month ago.

Host: Wow. And what were you doing before then?

Whitney: For two years, I was the assistant lab manager. And then, part of that, I was their bench tech. I worked night shift, day shift, evening shift.

Host: Several hats you’ve worn here. And it’s really helpful for me just to kind of understand your story here. And I would like to kind of begin things with last holiday season, when you found out that there were some challenges here, challenges that may close the hospital. It seemed like the hospital was going to close. And if you could, could you just kind of take me back to what that was like? How did you hear the news? Can you just kind of take us back in time?

Whitney: Well, it was a Friday morning. I was actually at my grandparent’s house visiting.

Host: You were not working that day?

Whitney: I was not. My lab manager at the time called me and said, “Hey. I have some bad news.” “Okay.” Never thought that it was closing.

Host: Just bad news. Okay.

Whitney: Bad news. She was leaving, something. I mean, something off-the-wall. And she said, “The hospital is closing.” “What?” I mean, my first words, “What?” I was like, “No, it’s not.” And she’s like, “Yeah. We just got out of a meeting. The hospital is closing and we will cease operations at the first of the year.” I don’t know. I just had to let her go. It was like a bad dream, bad shock.

What are the people of this community going to do? That was my first thought. That was everybody’s first thoughts. It was like, “What are they going to do?” Yeah, we can find other jobs elsewhere. But what is our community going to do? We have seen many a people who couldn’t have made it on down the road or whatever. And so me being the assistant at that time, I had asked her if I could call some of our other folks. And they had the same reaction. I mean, by the end, I’m squalling and bawling, and they’re like, “What is wrong with you? Whitley, what is wrong?”

Host: Calling other folks. Who are you calling?

Whitney: So they were workers with us. They were our coworkers. I had asked to call them, too. So I called them and they were kind of the same way. “What? That’s not possible.” I don’t know. I couldn’t get it off my mind. I mean, it was like every beck and call. It was the hospital. I couldn’t sleep. It was like that’s all we would all talk about for the longest. I mean, we just couldn’t. And then, of course, our mayor stepped up, our city council, Java. I mean, and they kept saying, “It’ll be a Christmas miracle.” Here we are, a year later, and we’re still here.

Host: You’re just making me feel emotional, too, just talking to you. I know it’s, clearly, a moving time. And I know you’re taking me back to a time where it felt really overwhelming. And you were with your grandparents. Do they live here, too? How long have they lived here?

Whitney: They do. Well, they moved here in their 20’s.

Host: So how did they respond when you told them?

Whitney: “No. No. It’s not going to happen. It is not going to happen. Somebody will do something. That hospital ain’t going to close.”

Host: Maybe that influenced you, because I’ve heard that you were one of the folks who really were like, “We’re going to have the Christmas miracle.” I feel like you were kind of that light.

Whitney: I was.

Host: And I wonder if that influence maybe came from your roots here, from your grandparents. You’ve been here all of their lives. So, yes, let’s keep talking through now. So you all started to rally together. You mentioned the mayor, mentioned the city council meetings. What were those like? When you were at those, how would you describe how the community was responding? Also, for context, it was such a short timeline that you would have had to keep it open.

Whitney: We always had a crowd. Our community seemed very supportive. I mean, it was like all the stories, that you should have heard before, all came out. It was like, “Oh, they saved my life,” and, “They saved my life.” I mean, you always have those little bad stories at every facility, but it seemed like all the good was coming out. And the mayor was taking these in. The mayor knew how critical it was. He cared.

Host: So everybody’s coming out to the City Hall. And I like how you’re saying, “All the good things were coming out.” All the stories of how this place has impacted their lives. And this place has impacted the community. You’ve seen it your entire life. Your grandparents. Everyone in the community. So did the thought cross your mind, “What if the doors do close?” What that impact would look like? Did you ever think what that would entail? What kind of implications would that have had?

Whitney: I feel like this town would have been a ghost town. I don’t know. In the back of my mind, I knew for some reason that we were not going to close. I was like, “We are not.” We’re too stubborn. I mean, we all kind of came in. We stood our ground here. And it was like, “Okay. They’ve stepped on the wrong toes this time.”

Host: And as you’re saying that, you just put your hands on your hips. I like the visual there. So because you knew if you don’t rally together, the bad could happen. And earlier you were saying, “It’s hard for someone to get on down the road to get support and the services they need.” How far is that road?

Whitney: Thirty minutes. Forty five minutes to an hour. I mean, depending on where you actually live in Winston County, I mean, you could have up to an hour drive.

Host: And with what you were doing at the time, assistant lab manager, what kinds of services would that have eliminated for folks who would have had to go so far?

Whitney: We take care of outpatient draw labs. A lot of doctor’s offices will send their patients here. They’re elderly patients that can’t afford to go to Birmingham or have the means of going all the way to Birmingham. And I feel like those would have halted. They wouldn’t have got the care that they would have needed to – the lab work and the tests they needed to take care of themselves.

Host: On the theme of just taking care of themselves, now that you were able to have that Christmas miracle, as I’ve heard it described, and we fast forward to where we’re at today. I know it can be a really stressful, kind of a dark time at some points, the uncertainty. But when you think back to how you’re feeling today, that you have been able to continue that impact and that legacy of what this hospital plays in the community, how do you feel today? And what’s the vibe? How’s it feel in the hallways here? What’s the mood here now?

Whitney: Relieved. We’re relieved we’ve got the people on board that I feel like we need to have on board to get our facility going, to make it better, to make Winston County and the surrounding areas healthier. I mean, that’s our statement here. And I feel like we’ve actually got the people here today who care and want to see this facility go forward and grow and bring more services into our community so that we will bring revenue into our town. We can have good services here at home just like they do everywhere else. And I feel like it’s just growing.

Host: I like that theme that you say of, “We want to keep it here at home.” You described just the economic impact, keeping the jobs here, keeping the families here, not being a ghost town. I think the visual you’re painting here makes sense, and I’m really thankful that we were able to hear your story from someone who experienced it and had that shared stubbornness, as you were describing, to keep this moving forward. So thank you so much for sharing your story with us.

Whitney: Well, thank you for letting me.

Host: Thanks for listening to Health IT on the Record, presented by MEDHOST. For more stories and content like this, be sure to visit medhost.com/resources. Thanks.