NEWPORT - In December 2006, Dr. Leslie Lockridge, MD, was hired by North Country Hospital to organize a fulltime oncology department. At that time, oncology was a one-day arrangement with Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center in Hanover, NH.
Lockridge was hired to provide full-time oncology and hematology services to patients suffering from cancer in the Northeast Kingdom. Patients would not have to travel to Hanover (about 110 miles each way from Newport) to receive their chemotherapy treatments, which are usually three times a week.
Dr. Lockridge got right to work, even helping to design, along with his staff, the present oncology department. In the last six years, patients have made thousands of visits to those rooms, had treatments, and lived much longer that they would have without the good doctor's help.
Last week, patients received letters stating that, as of Feb. 10, Dr. Lockridge would no longer be seeing patients at the NCH Oncology Clinic. Instead, two doctors from the Norris Cotton Cancer Center at Dartmouth have been hired to see patients two days a week, with 24/7 back-up services from oncologists at Dartmouth-Hitchcock.
"We believe that partnering with this nationally recognized cancer institute will improve the coordination of cancer care services with Dartmouth-Hitchcock and provide our community with the widest range of care and treatment options available," North country Hospital CEO Claudio Fort wrote in the letter.
He went on to say, "Should you have questions or concerns about this change, please do not hesitate to contact me."
Fort also included a sheet describing Ronald P. Kubica, MD, formerly of New Mexico, and Seregy Devitskiy, MD, formerly of Kursk, Russia. Both men are now at Dartmouth-Hitchcock and are slated to take over the oncology department at North Country.
In a telephone interview Thursday evening, Fort noted that compensation is not the main reason Dr. Lockridge was asked to leave. Fort said he had nothing but the highest regard for Dr. Lockridge and his abilities. He went on to say that the model abut to be in place would be to give the patients a direct hook-up with a major hospital and cancer center.
Fort said there would be a qualified nurse practitioner working in the clinic five days a week to administer chemotherapy treatments when the doctors aren't there.
As a result of the decision to replace Dr. Lockridge, a North Country Hospital Facebook page received hundreds of comments from Dr. Lockridge's patients expressing their outrage that the doctor was being 'forced out,' in their minds. As of Wednesday evening, the comments had been removed from Facebook.
Fort said his people had done that because, in many instances, desparaging remarks about the hospital had been included with the comments.
In a telephone interview from Montpelier, Senator Bobby Starr, D/Orleans-Essex, who has been a patient of Dr. Lockridge for the last four years, noted, "I was shocked and furoius when I got news that Dr. Lockridge had been asked to leave." He went on to explain that when he called Mr. Fort to get information, "He said we can't afford to keep going with only 25 patients. When I asked him about which two days the new doctors would be at the clinic, he said maybe Tuesday and Thursday. So I asked him what about the patients like me that can only come in on Monday. He said, well maybe Monday and Wednesday."
Starr said that, with his particular cancer, both Dr. Lockridge and Dr. Brent Tatum were treating him together. They were baffled, according to Starr, "So they sent me to the National Health Institute of Bethesday, MD. After much testing, they concurred with the diagnosis the two North Country doctors had come up with!"
Starr said the doctors in Maryland told him he was very lucky to have two excellent doctors in the Northeast Kingdom who were able to spot the cancer. "I told them that I already knew that," he noted with a chuckle.
"When you have cancer, and you have a doctor like Les Lockridge, it certainly makes the journey easier," Starr said. "This is a huge disservice."
He also noted that when he received a call from board chair Kathy Austin about Lockridge leaving, Starr received the same answers to the same questions he had discussed with Fort. "I knew that story had been rehearsed," he added.
There is a formal protest planned for the hospital's annual meeting at the Eastside Restaurant in Newport on Thursday, January 19, at 7 P.M. Many of Dr Lockridge's patients and friends plan to be there to let their wishes be known.