NEWPORT - The Newport City Police were called to the Eastside Restaurant Thursday evening to stop protesters from disturbing North Country Hospital’s annual dinner meeting.
The protesters, who want Dr. Leslie Lockridge, the local oncologist, to keep his job, turned out for the meeting and planned to peacefully demonstrate with signs. The protesters waited on one side of the restaurant until 7 p.m., when the dinner was scheduled to be over and the official meeting was to start.
At 7, a group of about ten protesters went into the room where the hospital employees were seated at their tables. The protesters quietly stood in the front of the room and held signs that said “Judgment Day for Mr. Fort” and “Les is more.”
Restaurant servers were trying to serve plates to the hospital employees and the aisles were somewhat congested. A friend of Lockridge asked the protesters to wait outside the room so they would not be in the way of the servers. The protesters quietly moved out of the way.
Within minutes, two Newport City Police officers showed up and were instructed by a hospital employee to guard the door and not let anyone pass who was not on the RSVP list. The chairman of the hospital board, Kathryn Austin, purportedly called the police.
Lockridge stayed with the protesters and invited everyone to go to a different local restaurant to be together, and they all left.
Before they left, protesters stayed in other areas of the restaurant and Dena Gray, the restaurant's owner, told them they were welcome to stay and hold their signs, but not in the dining room where the private dinner meeting was being held. The hospital’s annual meeting is private but the press was allowed to attend.
Inside the meeting room, Fort received a standing ovation from nearly all of the approximately 60 people who attended.
But Senator Robert (Bobby) Starr of North Troy said that Fort’s words made his stomach hard. Starr, a patient of Lockridge, said he can’t understand why something wasn’t worked out with the doctor to keep him at the hospital. Starr pointed out that Lockridge lives in the community and Starr is sure that many people don’t want to send more money to New Hampshire.
Starr is also concerned that the doctors will begin herding patients in and out as fast as possible, similar to how cattle are brought through a milking parlor.
During his speech, Fort said that there is still a lot of work to do to improve the quality of care and control costs. He recommended accepting change and embracing it.
Fort said that the decision to partner with Dartmouth was made with a goal of ensuring access to resources. He said Dartmouth’s world class cancer and research facility, Norris Cotton, has 35 oncologists specializing in different forms of cancer. He also said that cancer treatments and developments are changing constantly, and added that it is difficult for one doctor to stay on top of every aspect of the disease.
Fort said that it is difficult to have one single doctor available in one specific field, and noted that it is difficult to get coverage when that doctor goes on vacation or after hours.
He also talked about staying in business and how partnering is the way to go.
“We can’t avoid making difficult decisions,” he said, but he is “confident that it can be done strategically and successfully," and that the change will make the hospital stronger in the future.
The evening before the annual meeting Fort and the Board of Trustees met with nearly 300 patients at the Municipal Building in Newport to hear their concerns and answer questions. Fort and the board came under harsh criticism for the termination of Dr. Lockridge’s position as a full time oncologist, and a replacement by two visiting doctors from Dartmouth available two days a week.
“We do not have the volume of patients to support a full-time oncologist,” Fort said.