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Community Histories and Long-Term Changes by David Dry

SOHP Field Scholar David Dry is a second-year PhD student in the department of history.

“I’m afraid of doctors. I am. I am. I know you have to have them. You have to have them, and that’s the way it is. But seem to me like they make me nervous. Lois’ll tell you, I don’t go to the doctor. I ain’t went to the doctor in years. I mean, I just don’t want to go. I’ll have to go one day when something happens, but as long as I can make it, I ain’t going to go.”

Floyd Chrisawn is afraid of doctors. He won’t go, and as a result, he doesn’t get the healthcare he needs until his medical issues become dangerous. In isolation, this fact might be ascribed to some antiquated cliché of the independent backwoods mountaineer of Western North Carolina; however, Floyd is also a member of a community, and listening closely to a community of voices reveals a different reality.

This semester as a Field Scholar at the Southern Oral History Program I have been listening to fourteen interviews conducted in Mitchell and Yancey counties and undertaken as part of the Stories to Save Lives initiative. These interviews with medical providers and patients asked open-ended questions on topics related to life history, community, perceptions of health, and interactions with the healthcare system.

While health researchers sometimes conduct interviews asking targeted questions to elicit firm answers, the depth of inquiry and responsiveness to narrator concerns of oral history methodology reveals a wider range of observations that can challenge outsider assumptions about community needs and concerns.

The open-ended questions used by oral historians give narrators the power to address the topics they find most significant. Unsurprisingly, people in Mitchell and Yancey counties talked about different healthcare issues.

From retired nurse Marylin Cade we learn about dangers to women and babies with the closure of the local hospital’s Labor and Delivery. From midwife Lisa Goldstein we hear of the shift from healthcare to “health I don’t care” after the recent purchase of the local hospital by a for-profit company, and Emergency Room nurse Amber Miller vividly captures the burdensome expense for people struggling to get by of having to leave the county for medical care.

Taken together, these voices reveal a toxic brew of disappearing local services, declining personalized care from new for-profit providers, and growing barriers to accessing healthcare; however, these recent shifts don’t occur in isolation. In its emphasis on the past, as well as the present, oral history interviews can also reveal community histories and long-term changes.

Former factory worker Lois Laws emphasizes it is not just that the closing of the Labor and Delivery means you have to travel farther–it is the feeling of loss that you cannot deliver your baby in the place you were born. Retired parts manager Calvin Hall relates it is not just that the local hospital was bought by a for-profit company–it the sense of betrayal as that hospital was built by local hosiery mill workers donating two days of pay. It is not just that care is worse or harder to obtain—it is a mistrust that healthcare is still accountable to the local community.

Floyd Chrisawn wasn’t always afraid of doctors. In talking about his experiences in the area as a young man, he fondly recalls a number of local doctors he visited. What changed?

While Floyd alone might not explicitly mention each issue, listening closely a community of voices reveals that a lot has changed, and in helping to elevate community concerns, oral history can serve as a first step in solving complex community health issues.