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MS Health Divide

What one Mississippi hospital has to say about their Emergency Medical Services and how they function despite the deficiencies in rural areas

By journalism students Ashton Logan and Cearra Moore 


Calhoun County, MISS. 

Driving into Calhoun County, Mississippi, visitors are met with small communities, where the roads are lined with massive magnolias and natives that greet visitors with a “come on in and sit down” hospitality that was passed down by their grandmothers. In this rural Mississippi community, rivalries between the three highschools are taken seriously, kids play in front yards, and neighbors take care of one another. 

James Russell has proudly carried his title as “paramedic” since 1994, and is now responsible for patients all over Calhoun County, Mississippi serving as the Calhoun County Baptist Hospital Ambulance Services Operations Manager. 

The Calhoun City Baptist Hospital houses the Calhoun Medical Emergency Services EMT and paramedic team. Baptist sign located near hospital location. Photo by Cearra Moore.


Russell leads his team of emergency technicians and paramedics by example. When asked what his favorite part of his position is, he smiles saying he loves serving his community of 14,499 residents. 


“We respond to all of Calhoun County,” Russell said. “We have Vardaman, we have here in Calhoun City, Derma outside the edge of Calhoun City, we have Bruce, and Banner.” 


It’s no secret that Mississippi faces scarcity when it comes to the healthcare field. This is especially true in the Magnolia state’s rural areas. The National Rural Health Association Policy brief states that emergency services that cover large areas face longer traveling distances, and an increased demand for time spent with a patient that can result in major impacts on patient outcomes and rates of survival. 


The truth is simply in the facts: rapid EMS response times create better patient outcomes.


“Here in rural EMS, we deal with a very wide area and some of these areas can be very rural, very out of the way areas,” Russell said. 


The 588 square miles of Calhoun County is known as the “sweet potato capital of the world,” where agriculture is plentiful and those that harvest the land are sung songs of praise by the community. Although the vast amount of land is something that Calhoun City prides itself on, it is a worry that lingers with Russell’s team every time they are called.   


“If it is not necessary a residence, you might be having to search for the exact area, such as car accidents, especially if it’s any type of agricultural accidents, or even if it’s a patient that might be hunting out in the woods,” Russell said.  

According to the Mississippi Department of Health Emergency Services report in 2018, the Baptist Hospital emergency services team responded 1,850 times in that year. It also states that of the 701,547 emergencies that Mississippi Emergency Services personnel responded to all over the state, at least 29,713 of those were to farms and locations labeled as “other” and “unspecified.”

MS Department of Health Emergency Services report in 2018.

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The National Rural Health Association Policy brief also states that EMS providers all over the country try to set a goal of an eight minute response time when dealing with life threatening events or patients that need advanced life support. When faced with the challenges that come with rural EMS, such as travel time and the distance to the location of the patient, this threshold can not always be met.

Report of EMS response times in minutes. Photo by Ashton Logan.


Calhoun County’s emergency service personnel is not the only team in Mississippi that faces these obstacles when trying to provide distinguished care. 


A Yalobusha County family suffered a day of tragic events when they became responsible for transporting a family member suffering from a stroke to another county hospital because the ambulance was too far out.


“My sister was having a stroke,” said an Oakland, MS, resident. “At that moment we didn’t know what was going on but we knew something was wrong.”


The family traveled thirty minutes to the The University of Mississippi Medical Center’s satellite facility, in Grenada, MS, only to be met with a terrifying truth. 


Since the patient did not receive the correct medical treatment, their loved one suffered a cerebrovascular accident. She now suffers from paralysis to the right side of her body. 


The Calhoun County emergency services team do their very best to overcome these statistics and avoid tragic events with strategic planning and communication every day.  


Russell’s team battles terrain of sand clay hills and river basins, where their weapons consist of medical equipment and the gold chariots are replaced with orange, blue and white trucks with flashing lights. The Baptist EMS team leans on the Calhoun County Fire Department search and rescue team when it comes to local emergencies. 


The community regards the emergency response staff as angels that protect their rural home.


“They are a very big resource to us here,” Russell says. “They are trained in what they do, they will get on scene a lot faster because they are right there in the community.” 


A study from the University of Kentucky found that there is an average time of 21.3 minutes to complete a transport in rural areas across America. Russell and his team do their best to beat this statistic in order to provide the best service they can for their community.


“First thing that we do every morning is we get our trucks in order, or after every call we try to make sure that we have exactly what we need,” Corrie Sevier said.


Corrie Sevier is, as Russell describes her, the right hand of the emergency services operation at the Calhoun City Baptist Hospital. 


“I have been here for 18 years,’ Sevier said. “I started out as a driver then I got my EMT and did that for a few years and decided if I was going to keep doing it I would be a paramedic.” 


Sevier and Becky Kellum are Calhoun County natives, and between the two, have 14 plus years of service as paramedics, as well as countless stories to share if you have time to lend an ear. Both serve as CPR instructors, and also train and serve on the fire department’s search and rescue team. 


Each ambulance truck is staffed with a two person team consisting of an emergency medical technician (EMT) and a paramedic, which is imperative when in the field Russell says. 


“The difference between the two is just basically the scope of practice,” Russell said. 


According to the 2018 Mississippi Department of Health Emergency Services report, an EMT is the first level of training in the career structure. The training to become an EMT covers the very basics of life support and lays a foundation for care of ill or injured patients one might care for in the field. EMTs must complete a minimum of 120 hours didactic and laboratory instruction, as well as 45 hours of clinical and field work. 

Infographic of the approximate amount of support programs in MS.

Paramedics are more advanced when it comes to administering IV drugs, fluids, and can practice more advanced techniques such as intubation. 


Russell tells us he oversees 22 employees and stresses that it takes every one of these individuals to provide adequate care of their rural county. 


John Copeland, the general manager of the Baptist Hospital ambulance services says it’s a perfect storm right now in EMS across the nation. 


“We’re fighting a pandemic, with COVID, and we’re fighting being very short staffed. Our numbers of personnel in all of our regions across the nation are dropping,” Copeland said. “We are trying new ways to create EMTs, whether it be starting a new class or working with the schools in that area to put people in.”  


According to the The National Rural Health Association Policy brief, a national survey showed that rural EMS staff across the nation were more likely to be staffed by volunteers and that there is a large problem with recruiting and/or retaining volunteers. 


Kellum says this is one reason why they stay so involved in the community, because attaining new EMS staff allows for their operations to run smoother and give better care to their patients. 


“Get into your communities,” Kellum said. “We need them [emergency service volunteers] there’s a major shortage.” 


According to Russell’s staff, there is no better job in the world than being a paramedic or EMT. Waking up every day to serve their community is a passion that is evidently shared between all emergency services personnel at the Calhoun County Baptist Hospital. 


“I love my job, I do it strictly for my community,” Kellum said. 


“This is my heart, this is my life, I love what I do,” Sevier said. 


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