LaFAYETTE, Ala. — Charity Hodge had mixed feelings when she spotted a Facebook post announcing that her longtime primary care doctor was ready to retire after decades of serving their rural community.
“I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, no!’” Hodge recalled while sitting in an exam room on a July afternoon, waiting to see the physician, Terry Vester. “Well, I’m happy for the retirement part, but that’s my favorite doctor, so I’m crying on the inside.”
Hodge, a 29-year-old customer service representative, has been seeing Vester for nine years. She had come to check in on her diabetes management and to ask for anti-nausea medication in preparation for a cruise.
LaFayette — pronounced “luh-FAY-it” by most residents — and surrounding Chambers County face high rates of disease and chronic illness. Yet Terry Vester and her husband, Al, are the only primary care doctors in the town of 2,700 residents, surrounded by farms and other small communities.
The Vesters are in their late 60s and would like to retire soon. Terry Vester wants to spend more time with her grandson and aging parents. But she can’t imagine abandoning her patients, some of whom she has cared for since they were born.
“There are people here that still need in-town doctors,” said Vester, who sometimes visits patients in their homes. “So we want to stay here to take care of them until someone else is here to take care of them.”
Terry Vester’s worry — leaving her town with no doctors — is already reality across much of rural America, where many residents have health problems but few health care professionals to turn to.
LaFayette, in east-central Alabama near the border with Georgia, is a 30-minute drive to the nearest sizable city, the college town of Auburn. Its lush, wooded neighborhoods include elegant, restored homes with wraparound porches and massive lawns. But the town also has formerly grand houses that have fallen into disrepair, plus mobile homes and public housing.
The town’s median household income is much lower than the state’s and country’s. Black residents — who make up 70% of the population — are much more likely to live in poverty than white residents. They are also more likely to attend the public high school, whose student body is 90% Black and which is scheduled to close and consolidate with a majority-white school in another community.
The Vesters have worked in LaFayette since the early 1980s and saw the local hospital close in 1988. The nearest emergency room is now in another town 20 minutes away along a rolling road. So are the nearest urgent care clinic and pediatrician’s office.
©2023 KFF Health News. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.