Living to die in far Southwest Oregon

Author: Barrett Rainey

One of the smallest counties in Oregon – both in population and landmass – is Curry. It borders California to the South – Pacific Ocean to the West – the coastal range of mountains to the East. It also is apparently the unhealthiest county in the state. By quite a bit.

Because of moderate temperatures, mild winters, on-the-ocean-shore living and isolation from larger communities, the county has long been a favorite for retiring seniors. So that pushes up the mortality rate, right? Doesn’t appear so. Death counts for the elderly are quite comparable to elsewhere. The largest age range for the highest number of deaths in Curry is 40 to 60.

Here’s something else that jumps out of the county’s health department statistics. The number of people who’ve considered suicide is 35 per 100,000 population. For the rest of Oregon, it’s about 15 per 100,000. There you are with all of nature’s beauty, moderate weather for more comfortable living conditions, a lot less people to have to contend with than living in more populated cities and the folks who want to kill themselves – or have – is more than anywhere else in the state on a per capita basis.

If the numbers in that category are extrapolated, eight people of the 22,000 or so who live there will think about or kill themselves this year. No other county is close in per capita comparison. The report doesn’t speculate why this fatalistic condition exists in Curry. But it does point out some factors that may contribute to the numbers.

Geographically, Curry is a long, narrow county. It has only one small hospital and it’s 25 miles up a winding coastal highway from where most of the people live. There’s a second one about 35 miles South in California.

Oregon is one of only two remaining states requiring state approval to build a hospital and it appears such approval will never be forthcoming for the Brookings-Harbor area where most of the people in Curry County live. From a business standpoint – which is the basic decision point for certifying a new hospital – it doesn’t make economic sense to put one in the middle of the 60 miles which separate the existing facilities.

Brookings does have a new urgent care clinic. But the only permitted role for it is to receive patients – heart attacks, strokes, car wrecks or otherwise – determine the emergency, stabilize and arrange transportation to an appropriate hospital elsewhere. It can’t add a few patient rooms and play like it’s a small hospital. It’s really a glorified M-A-S-H unit.

So, does the lack of a hospital figure in to those outsized suicide statistics? Hard to say. But some other factors may contribute. Unemployment is higher than most Oregon counties. There really aren’t many good-paying jobs and the lumber company that’s the largest area employer isn’t running a full staff. Affordable housing is scarce. Lots of transients like the county because of the moderate weather.

The health – or unhealthy – report cites cancer, heart disease, strokes, respiratory problems and diabetes as the major factors killing Curry residents at a rate twice the state average. Alcohol and drug abuse, too. And of course, those suicides.

Another anomaly exists in Curry. Many years ago, a health district covered nearly all of it. Brookings had it’s own district then but, after a few years, it went out of business. The remaining district – headquartered 25 miles North in Gold Beach – doesn’t cover Brookings. So the most populated area the county has no official voice in health care decisions or planning.

The closest hospital serving the area where the most people live is 25 miles away up a winding highway. And, as the author of the public health district report points out, that Gold Beach hospital is 60 years old, falling apart and is in a tsunami zone.

There’s a trite, severely overused saying in that part of Oregon: “No hurry in Curry.” It’s become part of the local culture. Sadly. Having lived there for several years – then deciding to leave largely because of the lack of sufficient health care – I’d opine that phrase may have something to do with the sad health and medical profile of the county. A lot of things just don’t get done. Like establishing a new health district. Or joining what exists.

The local political climate is heavily “conservative.” An outsized number of retired folks have limited incomes which affects their willingness to get behind bond issues and the like. Many go regularly to Grants Pass, Medford, Coos Bay or Northern California care providers. They do so because the Brookings health care market is so small and remote that it can’t attract many physician specialists or more specialized clinics. Tele-medicine has been tried but hasn’t really caught on.

In sum, there doesn’t seem to be a lot of hope medical care will expand much in far Southwest Oregon. Sooner. Or ever. A remote location and a convergence of economic and social conditions seem to have put a cap on things.

Which leaves the local Chambers of Commerce a difficult message – one of trying to attract people to a beautiful part of Oregon. Where the suicide rate is more than double what it is in the rest of our fair state.

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