Taking care of the hill people
When mobile home park owners Bob and Dee Kearns lost a customer in the early 1970s, a new community care center was born. Thirty-three years later, that dream is kept alive by the first two doctors to staff what is now the Sutter North Medical Foundation’s Brownsville branch.
Dr. William Hoffman and Dr. John Rose first came to the area through the National Health Service Corps. In July 1974, a California Department of Forestry barracks was converted into the main health building. In the coming years, a kitchen became a dental office and the bathroom became a lab.
The changeover was done by community members eager to avoid a 40-minute drive to the nearest hospital in Yuba City. That drive is what cost the Kearns a customer and led them to get together with the rest of the Brownsville community to pitch in and make the medical center a reality.
Both doctors said it was that spirit that keeps it open to this day.
“If we didn’t have their backing, we wouldn’t be open,” Hoffman said.
Even with that support, the first year was rough for the two doctors. To keep in touch with the outside world, they needed a private line, which someone generously gave up. Neither of them knew that calls to the hospital in Yuba City were long distance until the first phone bill came.
To add to the chaos, neither doctor had been trained in billing procedures, and Hoffman had to try to set up the lab by himself.
They were able to get by with surplus goods from the NHSC, including sutures, casting equipment and a sterilizer.
Since they were the only medical center in the area, the clinic received many calls from the Yuba County sheriff and the California Highway Patrol to get patients patched up and ready for the drive down the hill.
One call had Rose driving to a scene 10 minutes away where the sheriff told him a man had been stabbed in the heart. During that drive, Rose was ready for one of three scenarios. If the man was dead, there was nothing he could do. If it was only a superficial wound, it would be a simple stitch job.
When Rose showed up, the man was sitting up and looked fine. After checking his blood pressure though, Rose knew it was the third option he prepared for. He was bleeding internally and needed to get to the emergency room as soon as possible. Rose did what he could and gave very simple instructions.
“I put the hoses in him and told the driver to drive like hell,” Rose said.
The man was both lucky and unlucky when he got to the hospital. The knife barely nicked his heart and was between two major blood vessels less than an inch apart, Rose said. Either one would have made him bleed. But that’s where his luck ended.
Deputies found he had a few outstanding warrants and the man ended up in jail next to the person who stabbed him.
Not all of the calls take the doctors to houses. Hoffman remembered when a drunken driver went down a ravine late at night during a raging storm.
While the rain poured and the winds whipped around, Hoffman had to slide down on a rope where he couldn’t see any further than 10 feet. The conditions didn’t faze him.
“I just wanted to get the job done.” Hoffman said, “Of course, I was more athletic back then.”
He was met down at the wrecked car by two rescuers with flashlights on the man inside who was bleeding out from his scalp. Dangling from a rope, Hoffman cleaned and stitched his patient’s head so he could be pulled out of the ravine.
“A few months later you couldn’t tell it happened,” Hoffman said of the man’s injury.
In either case, neither patient would have lived to the hospital. That care has evolved since then to become the Yuba-Feather Medical Group and then in 1993, part of Sutter North Medical Group.
Between the support of the community and the medical group, the two still see patients today who would still have a long drive to get care if it weren’t for them.
“You can be a shut-in, not drive and still get care,” Hoffman said.
The combination of the first few years of chaos and the remote location were far from the best conditions. Rather than making more money somewhere else, Hoffman and Rose stuck it out and still see patients at the Brownsville Medical Clinic to this day.
“People said we were crazy, but here we are 33 years later,” Rose said.