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Small-town hospital offers big-city expertise

MARIPOSA - John C. Fremont Hospital, tucked into a side street in this little mountain town, isn’t your typical hospital.

In the spring and summer, wild turkeys hang around the helicopter pad, and deer graze on the front lawn. Some visitors to the hospital ride up on a horse, and the grounds are dotted with fish ponds.

But the community-supported hospital isn’t just a backwoods, rural place the community avoids. Instead, cutting-edge technology and skilled professionals are helping keep Mariposa residents healthy.

Lorna Coci, the communications coordinator for Fremont Hospital, walked through the building on Friday morning, saying hello to both patients and employees. “This is such a small town, I know almost everyone who is treated here,” she said.

The hospital is an acute-care hospital, complete with a 24-hour emergency room and a total of 34 beds, which includes a skilled nursing facility.

The skilled nursing facility, or SNF, was busy Friday. Residents were playing bingo, working jigsaw puzzles or just enjoying the view of the gardens and mountains from big picture-windows. Coci walked through, talking to everyone, then stopped in front of an elderly woman and a younger man. “And this is my husband and my mother-in-law,” she said.

Family is important at Mariposa’s only hospital. Elnora George has been chief executive and chief financial officer for the facility since 1999. She is a fifth-generation Mariposa County resident and gave birth to her two daughters at Fremont. “I was in high school when this hospital opened in 1952,” George recalled.

The hospital got its start in the late 1940s, when the community voted to form a hospital district. The hospital was built at a cost of $464,000 for construction and $6,500 for the 20 acres it sits on.And the community still supports its hospital. Two years ago, the county’s citizens voted in a 1/4 percent sales tax hike that will go to keep the hospital afloat for the next 20 years. “What has made this hospital a success is the support of the community and the employees,” George said.

In the hospital’s pediatric room, brightly painted butterflies and plants decorate the walls. The paintings were done by a local group home to make a child’s stay at the hospital less scary. The volunteers at the hospital recently bought a pediatric crash cart for the emergency room. “When we get kids in here, it can be hairy,” Coci said.

Outside the hospital, a helicopter pad was recently enlarged to accommodate new and bigger medevacs. Patients who are too sick or injured to be treated at Fremont are flown to either Fresno or Modesto for their care.

During George’s tenure, the facility has switched over to digital radiology and has opened a hospice unit. A portable magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) machine rolls in once a week for patients.The hospital has also been designated as a critical access hospital. Rural hospitals located far from other health facilities, as Fremont is, get help from the government in the form of better reimbursement for Medicare because the hospitals provide necessary care.

“We are one of only 1,300 hospitals in the United States that have that designation,” said George. The hospital boasts three clinics and a roster of specialty physicians who each spend a couple of days a week at the facility. Across from the hospital, a MACT (Mariposa, Amador, Calaveras, Tuolumne) Health Board Indian clinic is located for the American Indians who live in the area. Fremont recently hired Dr. Stephen Lee, an internist. Lee actually lives in Los Angeles and Guam - he spends two weeks each month in Mariposa, and two weeks in Guam. “It’s fun practicing here, I’m not a big-city person,” Lee said.

Coci said it’s important for the hospital to have an internist because many of the truly sick people who come to the hospital have multiple issues. “We are lucky to have someone like Dr. Lee in Mariposa,” Coci said.

Having good doctors may keep the patients coming to Fremont, but George emphasized that it’s more than physicians who bring patients to the hospital.

“We couldn’t do any of this without the people of Mariposa County,” she said.So neither the hospital nor the folks who support it are typical.

Reporter Carol Reiter can be reached at 209 385-2486 or creiter@mercedsun-star.com.

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