A New Level of Health Care

Port St. Joe prepares for a new hospital thanks to the St. Joe Company and the Sacred Heart Health SystemsA New Level of Health Care in Port St. JoePort St. Joe is getting a new hospital, thanks to the St. Joe Company and Sacred Heart Health Systems 

By Jason Dehart

Gulf County may be a fine place to visit with its grand and gorgeous beaches, but don’t get into any accidents while you’re there. You may find yourself being flown to Pensacola, where you will be treated by doctors at Sacred Heart Hospital. That’s because Port St. Joe doesn’t really have its own hospital anymore, and only recently acquired an X-ray machine.

That’s all going to change in 2008, when Sacred Heart Health System, in partnership with the city of Port St. Joe and the St. Joe Company, opens a new 25-bed hospital complete with a 24-hour emergency department. Plans are in the works right now to deliver this state-of-the-art health care service to local citizens and visitors to the Forgotten Coast community.

“It’ll be such a benefit to this area, especially with tourists coming down, and the older tourists who want to be close to medical facilities,” said Carly Pickels of the Gulf County Tourist Development Council. “If you’re in a serious accident, they’ll have a helicopter nearby. It’s a first for this area. Right now, (a helicopter ambulance) has to come down from Marianna, land on a ball field, then take them all the way to Pensacola.”

Sacred Heart Health Systems, a not-for-profit company, has operated in Northwest Florida since 1915 and has become a regional leader in providing adult and pediatric health care. A member of the Ascension Health system, Sacred Heart’s mission is to deliver quality health care to the poor and uninsured – and every year it spends millions doing that. Sacred Heart has a 449-bed acute-care facility in Pensacola and in 2003 added a 50-bed hospital east of Destin in Walton County. Now it’s expanding further east to Gulf County. Its air ambulance service, AIRHeart, operates out of bases in Walton County and Marianna.

Sacred Heart spokesman Mike Burke said the new Port St. Joe hospital – which will be located near Gulf Coast Community College – had its genesis in the successful collaboration that led to the Destin hospital.

“It dates back to our partnership with the St. Joe Company that began in 2000, when we began discussing with them about building a hospital in south Walton County,” Burke said. “The residents of the Destin-South Walton area did not have a hospital, and so, in response to the community’s request, Sacred Heart stepped up and worked in collaboration with St. Joe to plan and build a hospital in Walton. It opened in January 2003. And then more recently, I guess two years ago, we had more discussions about the need for a hospital in Gulf County.”

The St. Joe Company, the region’s largest landholder, donated the land for the Port St. Joe venture and is in charge of preparing the site.

“We’re hoping to break ground any day,” said John Hendry, St. Joe’s vice president of strategic planning. “We have all the permits in hand, and Sacred Heart is going through the design process. The hope is we’ll break ground in 60 days,” he said in February.

“We donated the land because we need (a hospital) desperately, and it’s an important thing for this community,” Hendry said. “We had one here with a long history of mismanagement. It finally closed a year and a half ago, but before then we saw the need for a bona fide operator. Sacred Heart has great hospitals in various places, and our efforts to get them here sooner was to provide them with the land. We also committed $500,000 a year for the next 10 years for the hospital itself, to run the hospital … we will contribute to their mortgage, construction and equipment. It’s a contribution to the construction of the hospital.”

“St. Joe had provided some financial support for the hospital we built in South Walton County and they also came to the table with the Gulf County effort to offer some land for the project and some additional financial support if we could make a commitment to build a hospital (in Port St. Joe),” Burke, the Sacred Heart spokesman, said.

Dr. Henry Roberts, president of the Sacred Heart Foundation, said that since Gulf Pines Hospital in Port St. Joe closed, the community has been in great need.

“We were not out looking for another expansion, but we responded to the needs of the community leadership,” he said. “We were not looking for a mission, we were on a mission.”

“I think the health care planners would say that it is a medically underserved area,” Burke said. “They have no local hospital and they don’t have ties to a referral center or, I think, a more advanced medical center such as Sacred Heart.”

“There are some very wonderful doctors who are in the Port St. Joe area, who are involved 24-7 in the delivery of health care for the county, but they have no residential facility and also, hospitals do some very technical things such as digital radiology,” Roberts added.

Burke said the Gulf County Health Department has been helpful and supportive of Sacred Heart’s plans.

“They’re really looking forward to having a hospital that can work with them and provide some very important primary health care services to the community,” he said.

Sacred Heart already has made inroads in the county. Roberts said they opened a digital radiology department in the county’s health department in February, and he said it’s already proven to be a valuable asset. He saw this firsthand when he visited the health department right after the radiology department saw its first patient.

“There was a young lady who was in a public gathering that I spoke to who talked to me about her son, who had fallen and broken his arm,” he said. “She had carried him over to the radiology department and they had done the X-ray, and we read it in Pensacola. We identified where the break was and what to do, and the child went on to a local doctor who then proceeded.

“You see, that wasn’t available (until February), and the way the child would have been handled then, he would have been loaded up in a car or ambulance and driven to either Panama City or Tallahassee,” Roberts said. “So already we have begun to realize that we are serving a great, recognized need here. You ask that young mother whether or not it’s important what we’re doing, and with tears in her eyes, she said, ‘Thank you.’”

Categories: Forgotten Coast 2007, Forgotten Coast Archive