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Home » PEOPLE AND PLACES » MAINE » The Other Maine
A therapy practice affiliated with the local hospital in Fort Kent
The Other Maine

Healthcare in Aroostook County

By Alex Seise | February 28, 2011

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When most people daydream about living in a rural area, their minds wander to images of endless green pastures, warm neighbors armed with freshly baked pies and limitless sunny times ahead.

The Grounds at Northern Maine Medical Center

It’s all too easy to become swept up in the idyllic throwbacks to years gone by when you relocate to a quiet, peaceful setting somewhere between nowhere and the very edge of a wrinkled old map.

Unfortunately, day-to-day logistics are often ignored in these wandering visions. When the bubble finally does pop—and it always seems to burst at the most inconvenient of times—there’s a profound need to quickly seek out those things lacking in the land of butter churns and blissful bovine. Health services never cease to top most lists.

Aroostook County has its fair share of healthcare providers. But for an expanse of land that is roughly the size of Connecticut and Rhode Island combined and serving as home to an estimated 75,000 people, the trouble is in strategically placing these services so that everyone has equal access. With just a handful of major roads sewing the swaths of farmland, woodlands and downtowns together, it’s no easy task ensuring that health coverage is universal.

Some of the larger towns and cities, like Presque Isle and Caribou, are peppered with many types of medical offices. Their central location along the Route 1 corridor makes them ideal for routine check-ups and visits. Further off the beaten path, the offices grow sparser and it becomes more difficult to find a nearby optometrist, dentist or other practitioners.

The system is not perfect; some patients are forced to travel extensively for routine check-ups and services, even as far south as Augusta for veterans who rely on the Togus VA Medical Center. Fortunately for the majority, most are able to adapt rather quickly.

One of the first things David and I did when we moved to Madawaska was to call around to local dentists that accepted our insurance. One in Fort Kent was not accepting new patients; another in Houlton refused to cater to people like us who lived two hours away from the office. Taken aback by the dismal coverage, we resigned ourselves to searching in the bustling hub of Bangor, four hours south of us.

A Stethoscope

Fortunately, a few days before combing through phone books and coverage lists, we heard a radio advertisement for new patients at the Fish River Rural Health center in Eagle Lake, about 45 minutes from Madawaska. Less than a week later, our teeth were once again pearly white and we finally had our feet firmly in the door at an excellent practice. It was sheer luck that we heard the ad; but we soon learned that this is how it is done, and we’ve started keeping an ear trained to the radio.

Though the lifestyle is frequently laid back and relaxed, healthcare practices in the County are anything but antiquated. Doctors, nurses and other healthcare professionals are well-trained and bring specialized experience to their patients. New technologies surge in offices. At the University of Maine at Fort Kent, the state’s northernmost college, the nursing program consistently ranks high in statewide and national surveys. In full disclosure, David is currently enrolled there as an accelerated nursing student; however, he was drawn to UMFK’s nursing program by its accolades and he agrees that its excellent reputation is merited.

When it comes to emergency services, Northern Maine goes to extreme lengths to care for the citizens of the County. Though Aroostook County is serviced by less than ten hospitals, ambulances zip along the roads in order to save patients. Serious injuries are assessed at the local unit and routed accordingly; some are treated in-house, while other cases are flown to Bangor, Portland and even as far south as Boston. Emergency medical technicians in the individual towns are highly trained and take their positions as lifesavers very seriously.

Unlike other areas of New England where hospitals dot every few miles of highway, it’s not always easy to stumble into a medical facility in Northern Maine. But when a friend’s otherwise charmed life is marred by an emergency, the people here band together and do what they do best: support one another. It is thanks to this community-driven system that residents are able to survive trauma and thrive in an occasionally harsh area, and it adds yet another dimension to the idyllic image of pastoral living.

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