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SLV Health Expands Services and Commitment to the Community

ALAMOSA — Hospitals in rural areas are cornerstone institutions that offer a bevy of benefits to the communities they serve.

They are usually one of the largest employers in town and, typically, one of a handful of organizations that offer good-paying paraprofessional and professional positions in an industry that continues to grow even in tough times. Access to a local hospital nearby is a major plus to those looking to relocate. All those employees are the same people who patronize local businesses and put the dollars they earn back into the local economy. And, of course, they also deliver the health care that, in rural communities, is the only health care around for miles in each direction.

But, despite the crucial place they hold in a community, it has been a tough row to hoe for rural hospitals, with many strapped for cash and often serving a patient population with a greater number of medical conditions, struggling to survive. The rising cost of health care and an accelerating shortage of physicians and nurses have posed a major challenge for a number of years, and the pandemic only added fuel to a raging fire.

According to the Center for Healthcare Quality and Payment Reform, more than 150 rural hospitals across the nation closed down between 2005 and 2019. In 2020, another 19 shuttered their doors.

When the pandemic hit, and hospitals received COVID-19 related financial assistance, that number slowed to “only” six hospitals closing in 2021 and 2022. But now that financial support has ended, the financial pressure has returned stronger.

Like many other rural non-profit hospitals, San Luis Valley Health, the leading healthcare provider in the San Luis Valley, has faced its share of challenges. But, unlike many rural hospitals that have succumbed to a myriad of challenges and left thousands of residents with little access to care, SLV Health has grown stronger in the services provided to their patient population and commitment to the people of the valley.

As Dr. Carmelo Hernandez, SLV Health’s Chief Medical Officer, says, “In the past year, we have extended our capacity to care for the San Luis Valley. Our patient care availability has increased across multiple specialties, including General Surgery, Cardiology, OB/GYN and primary care. We are especially excited about providers with local roots committed to our community.”

Simply put, that extended capacity can be seen at a glance in the 15 healthcare providers SLV Health has hired in the past year or so.

Some providers were hired to fill vacancies; others were hired for new positions. Some are new to the Valley, and others have come home to practice medicine in the place where they grew up.

But all 15 providers hired by SLV Health in the past year alone now call the Valley their home. What follows is a list of who they are and what they do.

Providers caring for patients in the Valley

Mugabe Walker, MD, FACP, specializes in geriatric medicine, a sub-specialty of internal medicine and family medicine that focuses on the healthcare of older adults. FACP is a credential that reflects a doctor’s excellence and dedication within the internal medicine profession.

Michael Shell, DO, and Patricia Tafoya, NP, provides a wide range of robust services in Occupational Medicine. Dr. Shell specializes in the diagnosis and treatment of musculoskeletal disorders. PA-C stands for a Physician Assistant–Certified who has undergone testing by the National Commission on Certification of Physician Assistants.

Richard Snider, MD, is a member of the team caring for patients in the Cardiology Clinic.

Amarilys Rojas, MD, is a member of the team caring for kids at the Pediatrics Clinic.

Benji Kitagawa, DO, specializes in Emergency Medicine at Conejos County Hospital.

Providers with local roots include Bailey Buhr, PA-C, who sees patients of all ages in Primary Care, and Tylen Pavlovsky, PA-C, who also is in Primary Care and assists in the General Surgery and Cardiology Clinics.

Alex Schnaderbeck, DO, has also returned to his SLV home and is delivering babies, providing clinical services and other surgeries to women of all ages. In fact, when Dr. Schnaderbeck delivered his first baby at SLV Health in Monte Vista, it was in the same delivery room where he was born.

The medical team at the Stuart Avenue Clinic now includes Daniel Sours, NP, who specializes in Urology; Jonathan Roylance, MD, who specializes in Internal Medicine; and Mark Rice, PA-C, who cares for patients as part of the Orthopedics Department.

The Regional Medical Center has also welcomed new members to their team, including Kayla Toennis, DO, is a hospitalist providing care to RMC’s in-patients and Gina Stephens, NP, who cares for kids as part of the Pediatrics Department. And, in a specialty rarely found in most rural hospitals, Patrick Kane, MD, provides oncology care.

Investing in equipment, renovating rooms and homegrown paraprofessional staff

Even the best healthcare providers can benefit from having access to advanced technology that makes their excellence in treating patients even better. Toward that end, SLV Health has made some crucial investments.

Recently, the SLV Health Foundation Board voted to purchase “SAVI SCOUT," technology that replaces the previously used wire localization that marks the location of a tumor in a patient’s breast before the patient goes into surgery.

As Dr. Carla Christ, general surgeon, describes on the SLV Health blog, before "SAVI SCOUT," a patient waiting for surgery would have to “sit around with a wire sticking out of the breast that could potentially get dislodged.” Now, “The SAVI SCOUT gives the doctor the ability to see how far they are from the marker and mass that we are going to remove. It allows for better flow through the day so patients can get the marker placed at any time before their surgery.”

SLV Health also updated infusion pumps across the entire organization, providing improved patient safety, and upgraded their echocardiogram machine to enhance diagnostics at the Cardiac Clinic.

The Regional Medical Center, which has been in the Valley for nearly a century, is also set to undergo renovations, thanks to a $1 million grant awarded to the Lutheran Hospital Association of the San Luis Valley.

According to the SLV Health blog, seven rooms — currently used for outpatient cardiopulmonary services — will be converted to “flexible private suites,” including two equipped to provide enhanced infection control and isolation capabilities. All seven rooms will feature ADA-compliant bathrooms, LED lighting, air scrubbers, and necessary technology updates for modern equipment and patient monitoring.

Investments were also made in staff as, late last year, the first cohort of students completed training to become medical assistants — crucial members caring for patients by supporting healthcare providers and providing front-line, provider-directed care.

Supporting patients and the communities where they live

SLV Health’s steadfast commitment to caring for people extends beyond its patient population and far, far beyond the four walls of their facilities.

When a fire destroyed multiple homes in Monte Vista last year, SLV Helping Hands — part of the Employee Assistance Program — raised over $25,000 that went directly to assist those who lost their homes in the fire.

The SLV Health Trauma Team provided first aid kits to local sports teams to keep on the sidelines in case a student-athlete gets injured during a sporting event.

Staff organized and participated in fundraisers to support the labor and delivery department and, going one step further, help patients who are unable to pay for the services they received.

These efforts and others — like adopting families at Christmas, holding coat drives in the winter or passing out free books to those who like to read — exemplify the commitment to community that runs throughout the fabric of SLV Health.

Despite it being a time of significant difficulties for many rural hospitals nationwide, SLV Health continues to deliver good health care to patients and good news to the people of the San Luis Valley.