Slater Residents Seek Hometown Health Care
SLATER - Every six weeks, Barbara and J.I. Akeman climb in their car for a 60 mile drive to Columbia neither of them looks forward to.
"It's a trip I just dread," Barbara said.
Born and bred in Slater, J.I. suffers from macular degeneration and has to make regular trips to a Columbia hospital where a doctor gives him shots in his eyes. Because J.I. cannot drive after the treatment, Barbara has to drive him.
While the Akemans accept that they will likely never see specialty health care in their hometown that would prevent these trips, they say traveling to see doctors in bigger cities for any ailment is becoming more difficult every year.
"At 86, I regard my driving privileges very highly," J.I. said. "Barbara and I just hate to go to doctors somewhere else."
That's why the Akemans have been so active in efforts to bring primary care to Slater. Due in part to contributions of more than $100,000 from the Akeman family, and in part to Barbara's community fundraising efforts, a new rural health clinic will open in February in the town of 2,000.
"I've never liked going around asking people for money, but this has been easy for some reason," Barbara says. "I guess it's because I really believe in it."
State figures show Missouri's rural counties are at a higher risk of health problems and disease. Data from the Missouri Department of Health and Senior Services show Saline County, in which Slater is located, has the highest risk of high blood pressure and high cholesterol of any county in Mid-Missouri, and an obesity rating only topped by two other counties in the state.
Ron Ott, President and CEO of Fitzgibbon Hospital in Marshall, attributes these high rates of risk to a lack of accessible primary care.
"The smaller the community, the greater the challenges in getting primary care or even specialty care," Ott said.
Fitzgibbon Hospital will staff the Slater clinic with a nurse practitioner when it opens, the first time in years the town will have five-day-a-week primary care available. A Marshall-based doctor will continue to visit Slater twice a week.
When it opens, the clinic will be named both for the primary donors -- the Akemans -- and for a longtime town physician, Dr. McBurney.
Dr. McBurney "meant everything to [Barbara] and me," J.I. says. "He raised our kids, he'd come out to my house in the night to make house calls."
"And it didn't matter what time you called him. He was there," Barbara adds.
But like in many rural communities across the region, when Slater's two town physicians died, there was not a doctor to replace them. John Markovich, who runs Slater's pharmacy, remembers that after the doctors' passing, the availability of primary care started to slip.
"When they passed on, we had doctors from the Marshall area that would maintain our clinic. And that would dwindle, with less days, less days," Markovich remembers.
The Akemans want to recognize Dr. McBurney with the clinic, but they also want to leave a simple legacy for their hometown's health care:
"We want to get it all right here," J.I. Akeman said.