BELHAVEN, BEAUFORT COUNTY - The Town of Belhaven's mayor and his supporters are making a 300-plus-mile walk from the site of the now closed Vidant Pungo Hospital to Washington, D.C.
Vidant Pungo Hospital, located on Water Street in Belhaven, was shut down on July 1 because Pantego Creek, LLC --the company that oversaw Vidant's takeover of the hospital in 2011-- did not agree to a transfer of ownership to the town. (CLICK HERE to read more.)
Now, EMS is taking patients to facilities in Washington or Plymouth, which are more than 25 miles from Belhaven.
Belhaven Mayor Adam O'Neal began his 300-plus-mile walk from the now closed Vidant Pungo Hospital at about 9 a.m. Monday. He said he plans to walk 20 miles each day --with short rests every 5 miles-- until he reaches the nation's capital.
Mayor O'Neal said he wants people nationwide to know about Belhaven's struggle to keep Vidant Pungo Hospital open.
"I feel that it's so wrong that the more attention it gets, the more likelihood it will have a good outcome for the community," Mayor O'Neal said.
O'Neal hopes to meet with Attorney General Eric Holder and even President Barack Obama once he gets to Washington, D.C. But he doesn't have any formal appointments.
"What we want to come out of it is that we want someone to get involved and stop Vidant from doing what they've done of closing our hospital," said O'Neal.
Mayor O'Neal said most of Belhaven's residents support his journey.
"Ninety-nine percent of the people in town are enthusiastically supportive. We've got people riding by and giving us water, tooting the horn. People are very excited about what we're doing," O'Neal said.
Supporters like Karen Wahab joined Mayor O'Neal on the first few miles of his walk Monday.
"This is a very critical issue and it starts in your hometown," Wahab said. "You can sit on your porch and you can worry, or you can get out and do something."
Mayor O'Neal said he expects to reach Washington, D.C. in two weeks.
O'Neal said Vidant no longer responds when he attempts to contact them.
He also said that the Department of Health and Human Services is investigating Vidant Pungo Hospital's shutdown.
In response, Roger Roberston, president of Vidant Community Hospitals, issued the following statement late last month:
"Since April 1, Vidant Health has worked extensively to assist the town with its request to transfer ownership of Vidant Pungo Hospital in Belhaven. Vidant Health has continued to operate the hospital for the agreed upon 90 days and has fulfilled all of its obligations outlined in the mediation agreement.
"The town's recent accusations only serve to disguise the fact that it has failed to fulfill its obligations as outlined by the mediation agreement."
Vidant said it has opened a 24/7 clinic at the Vidant Family Medicine practice at 216 Haslin Street in Belhaven. In addition, Vidant will continue to offer ambulatory care at its other two physician practices on Allen Street (Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, Friday: 8 a.m.- 5 p.m.) and Water Street (Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday: 8 a.m.- 5 p.m.; Thursday: 8 a.m.- noon).