Twenty-nine years ago, Dr. Barbara Cook, 69, medical director of The Access Partnership, John Hopkins University, Dr. Maura Dollymore, 57, Surgeon General of the U.S. Coast Guard and Dr. Margo Erme, 57, medical director of the Summit County Ohio Public Health Department, were labeled as the “girls from Welch.”
Cook, Dollymore and Erme — all scholarship winners from the U.S. Public Health Service — were required to work in a rural area after they completed their residencies. All three were sent to Welch Emergency Hospital, today known as Welch Community Hospital, in McDowell County.
They spent two years in Welch.
In April, Cook, Erme and Dollymore returned to the area for a reunion. Cook marked the event by writing a Letter to the Editor that appeared in the Daily Telegraph on April 29.
She writes, “Drs. Dollymore, Erme and I have relied on the experiences during those years in McDowell County to shape our careers as physicians.”
In an interview, the three woman share more memories about their time in Welch, how the community changed their outlook on medicine and their recent reunion.
Cook was in her 40s when she arrived in McDowell County. She met Dollymore at an orientation in Philadelphia. Once in Welch, they met Erme.
“We had complementary training and skills. We quickly became foxhole buddies in the rough and tumble of McDowell County in the mid ’80s where economic and medical challenges abound,” Dollymore said.
According to Cook, they were assigned to provide medical leadership to organize and open a brand new hospital in Welch. Erme was trained in emergency medicine; Dollymore in internal medicine and Cook was trained in family practice.
It was a challenge. The three doctors were used to cities with unlimited amounts of resources.
“I was particularly challenged at first because we were doing OB and my experience was two or three gentle touches of a baby’s forehead as some one else did all the work during my third year of medical school,” Dollymore said. “ ... Second week of Welch I was on OB call. Thank God, Barbara Cook saved my life and insisted we all take call together, so we became a team.”
In Chicago, Erme was used to medicine with all the “bells and whistles.” In Welch, things were different.
“Coming to Welch brought me back to what I was taught in medical school about the importance of a good history and physical. We did not have easy access to all the tests, resources and referrals with which we were accustomed to during residency,” Erme said.
Dollymore said they were always learning, calling colleagues about cases, reading and consulting with others in the medical field.
“I saw amazing cases almost daily,” she added.
For Cook, the time in Welch taught her how to lead, organize, diagnose and treat without modern equipment.
“For example, during my time there, we had no ability to check patient blood gasses on site; we had no equipment to adequately resuscitate a sick newborn. We coped but we pushed hard to obtain the needed, standard equipment to care for our patients. More importantly ... we learned on focus on ‘true north.’ We set our sights on what was truly important in our care of our patients and it has served me well throughout my career.”
They received a lot of help from area doctors.
“The hospital community welcomed us with enthusiasm. They were enthusiastic members of our health care team. They helped us maintain our sense of humor and equilibrium. They were inspiring in their devotion to the patients at Welch Emergency Hospital,” Cook said.
She credits Dr. Bruce Lasker, Dr. Randall Lester and Dr. Chad Ashby for supporting them during their time in Welch.
Dollymore also recalls the valuable help she received from the community.
“We could not have done our work without the docs at the various hospitals — Bluefield especially,” Dollymore said. “They took our calls, gave us reassurance, advice and accepted our very often sick patients with respect and compassion.”
After two years, Cook, Dollymore and Erme left Welch to explore other career options. But they never forgot about Welch or the people.
“My patients were and still are an inspiration to me,” Dollymore said. “Their grit, their generosity and their humor, most especially. I remember and cherish them and their stories.”
She kept a journal during her time in Welch and would one day like to bring those stories to the rest of the world.
Because of her time in McDowell, Dollymore changed career paths.
“McDowell County totally shifted the trajectory of my future,” she said. “I moved into community health center work. My focus in medicine shifted to think more to communities and populations.”
Her current job includes being responsible for a health system and family services for the U.S. Coast Guard. After leaving Welch, Erme spent the next nine years as an emergency room doctor. In 1993, she received her master’s degree in public health from Ohio State University. She is now the medical director with Summit County (Ohio) Health Department. Some of Cook’s highlights include being elected as the first woman to the board of governors of the Ochsner Clinch and her career at John Hopkins as a physician leader.
At the mini-reunion, the women reunited as old friends. They spent time talking and catching up with each other’s lives. Then, they went in search of their past.
“We went to Bluefield Hospital in the hopes of finding Dr. Lasker who was such a help to us. He was there on labor deck,” Cook said. “We went to Welch Emergency Hospital and found women who continue to work there. They were medical assistants and LPNs in the mid-80s. They have gone on to get their nursing degrees, have become nurse practitioners and one nurse practitioners is even getting her doctorate...”
They also wanted to see friend Laura Vaughn, the clinic nurse who supported all three doctors.
“She was amazing, an inspiration and we have kept in touch with her throughout the years,” Cook said.
Dollymore was pen pals with Vaughn’s daughter Cleo. But after Cleo passed away, she had lost connection with Vaughn.
Erme was excited to reconnect with Dollymore and Cook; she also wanted to see how McDowell and the hospital had changed over the years.
“I was pleased to hear that the staff with whom we worked did not stagnate; they have worked to advance themselves professionally,” Erme said. “We knew they all had the ability; it was gratifying to hear that they took the actions.”
They learned a lot about the area during their visit — the floods, the popularity of ATVs, tourism efforts and more. Welch didn’t look much different, but other parts of southern West Virginia had changed since their days at Welch Emergency Hospital. Cook was sad to see that Stevens Clinic Hospital — their competition in those days — is now a jail. While traveling they forgot how curvy the roads were between Bluefield and Welch.
“I felt my age because I now cringe at the curves on the steep drop-offs that did not phase me in the ’80s ...” Dollymore said.
They will never forget Welch, those first patients and the friendship forged by circumstances.
“I learned medicine and how to be a doctor in McDowell County,” Erme said.
Even today, Cook shares her stories of Welch with current colleagues and friends.
“It was a time when we met people of enormous courage and resilience,” she said. “We have told their stories over and over again.”
Will they return for a second reunion?
Dollymore wants to help celebrate a local colleague’s achievement. Erme and her husband, who also worked in McDowell County during her two-year commitment, would like to show their son where they lived and worked as a young couple. And Cook? Well, she said you never know.