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The air ambulance helicopter flies over the Pinke home to the nearby rural hospital. Since 2010, 70 hospitals have closed across rural America and another 673 rural hospitals are “vulnerable or at risk for closure” a study from the National Rural Health Association shows. (Katie Pinke/ Agweek)

With rural hospitals at risk, show support to keep them viable

My girls heard the helicopter first and bounded up the basement stairs to alert me. "The helicopter is landing!" they announced.

On the edge of our small town, we can see the helicopter air ambulance when it directly lands on the street in front of our rural hospital and clinic. But long before we see it land, we hear it. We wait to see it as the noise comes closer. The helicopter flies over our house and our daughters have watched it their entire lives.

We pray for the patient, knowing we most often will know them from our community or area, and the medical team while we can't see the helicopter on the ground and then when we hear it again, we go back to our window to watch it depart.

This month, after heavy snowfall and sustained high winds, our one and only state highway going through our small town was closed. Impassable snow drifts both to the east and west did not allow for any travel. The local ambulance could not go out and instead there was the air ambulance, which comes from different places but is at least 100 miles away.

As the air ambulance helicopter lifted into the sky again, I paused to think about rural life without rural health care.

Fifteen percent of Americans live in rural areas, or about 46 million of us, according to the U.S Census Bureau. I often share about the reasons I love living rural, advantages to small towns and raising kids in an environment that the other 85 percent of Americans may consider "the middle of nowhere" but to us, it is our somewhere. The access we have to rural health care is one thing I love about rural life in North Dakota.

But it's not that way for all 46 million rural Americans. 70 hospitals have closed across rural America since 2010, according to the University of North Carolina Cecil G. Sheps Center for Health Services Research. Another 673 rural hospitals are "vulnerable or at risk for closure" a study from the National Rural Health Association shows.

Less access to health care means rural residents are sicker than urban residents. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, "Rural Americans are more likely to die from heart disease, cancer, unintentional injury, chronic lower respiratory disease, and stroke than their urban counterparts. Unintentional injury deaths are approximately 50 percent higher in rural areas than in urban areas, partly due to greater risk of death from motor vehicle crashes and opioid overdoses."

If you're in the 15 percent like I am and a rural American and still have access to rural health care, it doesn't have to be a helpless or hopeless situation.

Advocate for rural health care. Support health care. Volunteer to help. Utilize the health care providers and medical services in your rural communities and area.

Our local hospital continually invests into new diagnostic equipment and resources for patient care. My experience is rural health care facilities offer more specialty services and testing than most know. My kids, husband and I all utilize our medical clinic in our town of 1,000 people and, at times, have found ourselves in the emergency room. It's in those moments of great need I am overcome with gratefulness for the skilled professionals we have who choose to serve in rural health care. We wouldn't have the rural quality of life we have if it wasn't for the people and facilities serving and working in rural health care.

My husband has served as a volunteer on our local hospital and clinic board for nearly 10 years. He researches, reads, networks and prepares as best he can to bring value in his volunteer rural health care board role. More than anything, he cares deeply for the people, equally for the people who work in the hospital and clinics and the patients who need the medical services and care.

Show a rural health care provider, employee or facility you care by giving your support with your next appointment, attending their fundraisers and sharing the positives your rural health facility brings to your quality of life.