Your heart stops in rural Arkansas. The ambulance is 20 miles away.

A man died in my hometown of Augusta. He was not a man whose passing garnered any attention. His family grieved, and those of us who know him took a moment to remember how nice he was. But then, life quickly moved on.

He hadn’t been feeling well that day, so he called 911. He sat down to wait because he knew the nearest emergency room was 25 miles away. When the ambulance arrived–some 20 minutes later–they found him on the floor. The EMTs worked feverishly, but he was gone.

We can’t say he would have lived if the EMTs could have arrived sooner. All we can say is that he died as he waited that long 20 minutes.

He was just an ordinary man who died an ordinary death; he had a heart attack. He was young, just nearing 50, but not immune from what kills most men in Arkansas. He died in circumstances all too ordinary in our rural communities.

There was no negligence from the ambulance company, no unnecessary delay by the 911 operator. He simply lived in an area where just one ambulance service covers an entire county and a round trip to the closest hospital takes just slightly under an hour. The EMTs are a dedicated and hardworking group. They have compassion and love for their little community; they, more than anyone, want to save every life they can.

He, like the rest of us rural Arkansans, have to accept some sacrifices. Grocery stores, restaurants, and diverse cultural opportunities are limited. And a 20-minute wait for an ambulance is routine. People that don’t understand why we accept these sacrifices instruct us to “move away” or remind us that we “chose to live there” if we voice an objection.

For many of us, it is not a choice. And more importantly, access to lifesaving treatment shouldn’t depend upon which ZIP code we live in.

Some of our communities have found ways to subsidize ambulance services, guaranteeing a company a minimum income just to operate in their area. Unfortunately, it just is not always enough.

In rural Arkansas, there is a limited amount of tax dollars to go around. Revenue for retail sales taxes are either non-existent or are borne by the customers of the one or two retail outlets that have managed to stay in business.

In 1991, the Legislature saw fit to pass Act 833 to designate funds for fire protection in rural Arkansas. This kind of solution is now needed to help ensure emergency medical services to rural areas.

We could do this through public-private partnerships with existing providers. Or it could be accomplished through establishing some type of trauma center on or near school campuses across rural Arkansas.

Both sides of the aisle have politicized health care and access to care. Ideology and soundbites have dominated the debate, but in the rural parts of our state, this isn’t a Democratic or Republican issue. It is quite literally a life or death issue.

It matters, and it’s a fight we should all be fighting.




Michael John Gray of Augusta is chairman of the Arkansas Democratic Party.