KHN and St. Louis Public Radio have launched a podcast about the often painful cracks in the American health system that leave people frustrated — and without the care they need.
Each season, we’ll take you somewhere new — to an overlooked part of the country, to a community suffering because of gaps in care, to a failing sector of the health care industry.
Our first destination is Fort Scott, Kansas. Rural. Midwest. Gritty. Deeply Christian. Largely poor. And sicker than other parts of the state.
Fort Scott and other rural towns played a role in electing President Donald Trump. They represent the demographic fault lines that pundits point to as proof of a widening cultural gap between rural and urban America. As the 2020 presidential election nears, the lives of people in rural America are in the spotlight again.
Season One is “No Mercy.”
The story begins when Mercy Hospital Fort Scott shut its doors. Locals lost health care. Health workers lost jobs. Fort Scott’s sense of identity wavered.
Season One is about what happened next — about the people who remain, surviving the best way they know how.
No Mercy: The hole left behind is bigger than a hospital.
Across rural America, hospitals are packing up and leaving — and so is a younger generation. Fort Scott is just one example. More than 130 rural hospitals have closed since 2010. The podcast season shows the mighty economic and emotional blows a hospital closure delivers. Nonetheless, what we found challenges the notion that every community needs a hospital.
Sarah Jane Tribble grew up on 10 acres about an hour from Fort Scott. After two decades away from home, Sarah Jane returns to southeastern Kansas to ask residents how the hospital closure changed their lives. Along the way, Sarah Jane embraces her roles as a native Kansan and investigative journalist to ask uncomfortable questions of town leaders and the Catholic nuns once ran the hospital.
Trailer | Where It Hurts, Season 1: No MercyThe story begins when Mercy Hospital Fort Scott shut its doors. Locals lost health care. Health workers lost jobs. Fort Scott’s sense of identity wavered. Season One is about what happened next — about the people who remain, surviving the best way they know how. No Mercy: The hole left behind is bigger than a hospital. Hosted by investigative journalist and Kansas native Sarah Jane Tribble, the podcast is a production of Kaiser Health News and St. Louis Public Radio.
Chapter 1 — It Is What It IsMidwesterners aren’t known for complaining. But after Mercy Hospital closed, hardship trickled down to people whose lives were already hard. Pat Wheeler has emphysema. Her husband, Ralph, has end-stage kidney failure, and the couple are barely making ends meet as they raise their teenage grandson. Pat has simmering anger for the hospital executives who she says yanked a lifeline from residents. “They took more than a hospital from us,” she says.
Chapter 2 — The Good CaptainClosing a hospital hurts. In Fort Scott, no one was a bigger symbol for that loss — or bigger target for the town’s anger — than hospital president Reta Baker. Reta was at the helm when the hospital doors closed, putting her at bitter odds with City Manager Dave Martin, who some in town call “the Little Trump” of Fort Scott. He says his town wasn’t given the chance to keep the hospital open.
Chapter 3 — Tragedy Is Going To HappenEmergency care gets complicated after a hospital closes. On a cold February evening, when Robert Findley falls and hits his head on a patch of ice and his wife, Linda, calls for 911, the delays that come next expose the frayed patchwork that sometimes stands in for rural health care.
Chapter 4 — Dedicated To Suffering HumanityFor more than 100 years, Mercy Hospital — or at least the nuns who started it all — cared for Fort Scott. Town historian Fred Campbell says Mercy was part of the town’s DNA since its booming rail town days. But in recent years, as Fort Scott’s economy struggled, locals say the hospital went “corporate.” Sister Roch, the powerhouse who consolidated all the Mercy hospitals in the Midwest, has an answer.
Chapter 5 — Poppyseed Bread, Orange Glaze And ChemoSixty-five-year-old Karen Endicott-Coyan is living with a blood cancer and she needs frequent chemotherapy. Before Mercy Hospital closed, she got her cancer care right in town. These days getting to chemo means an hour-long trek on rural roads and narrow highways. The stress and frustration of traveling illuminates one reason cancer death rates are higher in rural America.
Chapter 6 — What I Was Raised And Taught To DoLife in a small town often feels like a dead end for Josh, a teen whose mother died of a drug overdose when he was 3. His grandparents became sick just as Mercy Hospital was closing, forcing them to seek care hours away from home. Soon after, Josh dropped out of high school to help more at home, upending his already unpredictable life. Months have passed since Mercy Fort Scott closed, and some in town have softened their position. Hospital president Reta Baker and City Manager Dave Martin end months of acrimony and begin to realize where they do agree.
Chapter 7 — A True ReliefWhat kind of care do the people of Fort Scott absolutely need? Sherise Beckham, a 31-year-old wife and mother, lost her job at the hospital when Mercy closed — just as she was expecting her second child. The closure disrupted her prenatal care and left Sherise’s family frightened. But when Sherise is hired at the new community health center, it seems her family’s — and the town’s — fortunes may be changing.
BONUS: Searching For The Nuns Who Ghosted Fort ScottHost Sarah Jane Tribble sets out on a mission to understand the Sisters of Mercy, the nuns who founded Fort Scott’s Mercy Hospital. They were once prominent leaders of the community, but by the beginning of her reporting the nuns are gone. Sarah Jane’s first glimpse into their lives takes her to an old convent.
The Podcast Team
Sarah Jane Tribble
Sarah Jane is a senior correspondent for KHN and covers the state of health care in rural America. She’s led award-winning coverage on prescription drug prices and the rare-disease drug industry. Sarah Jane has been a print and audio journalist for more than two decades.
Managing Editor, Managing Producer
Taunya is senior editor for broadcast innovation with KHN, where she leads enterprise audio projects. Previously, Taunya was editorial director of “The Pulse,” a national health and science radio show produced at WHYY in Philadelphia.
Original music, Mix and Sound Design
Greg is the midday host at St. Louis Public Radio. When he’s not at the station’s helm, Greg cooks, teaches guitar, gardens and records lots of music.
Tarena is assistant social media manager at KHN. Previously, she was a communications intern for the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation.
Illustrations, Design and Logo Art
David is a visual communication specialist with St. Louis Public Radio. His day-to-day responsibilities are a mashup of graphic design, illustration and photography.