Carroll: A meaningful Aspen Valley Hospital expansion

Meredith C. Carroll
Muck Off

It’s not as if the 8½-hour drive from Denver to Aspen on Dec. 22 wasn’t hell; it’s just that it was a distinctive, first-world kind of road to perdition. There’s no sugarcoating that the trip stunk, but since I was returning from the office of a doctor whom I could not have seen in Aspen, I accept that harrowing journeys can be the price of living in a remote resort town. In fact, I’m grateful that in the more than 20 trips I made to the Front Range in 2014 for surgeries and medical appointments, only three of them were in blizzard-like conditions.

The trade-off for living somewhere with backyard scenery like ours is that if something goes really, really wrong healthwise, we often have to look beyond our beloved mountains hundreds, if not a few thousand, miles to get the specialized medical help required. This was never clearer to me in the 11 years that I’ve lived here than exactly one year ago today, which is when I was diagnosed with breast cancer. (Spoiler alert: I’m fine.)

While one of Aspen Valley Hospital’s two new general surgeons is also a breast specialist, he wasn’t on staff until well past the date that it could have mattered to me. Besides, I knew from the moment of my diagnosis that I’d be traveling outside the valley for all of my surgeries. The particular qualities I sought in a breast surgeon, plastic surgeon and oncologist started and ended with them doing to and for others — all day, every day — what I needed them to do to and for me. Sure, lots of breasts abound in Aspen, real and fake (I know this because many of both were shown to me as I researched my options last winter), but not enough to warrant filling up a surgical schedule each week. There’s just not that kind of critical mass in Aspen.

Let’s say, though, that AVH’s breast specialist is excellent (which, by many accounts, he is). How well-versed is the operating-room support staff in surgeries like lumpectomies, mastectomies and reconstruction? Then there are the pre- and post-op appointments and follow-ups, wherein I learned firsthand how nurses and physicians’ assistants with dedicated training and experience can be the ones to catch tiny but critical complications.

This is not to say that AVH’s worth is too general and therefore not tremendous, because it is easily the latter. I had the great fortune of being among the first wave of moms to give birth in its delightful new maternity wing when it opened in mid 2008. The care I received from All Valley Women’s Care and AVH cannot be overstated. My pregnancies and births were not without their concerns, although the faith I had in Drs. Mindy Nagle and Tasha Knight as well as nurse practitioner Beth Weisenborn — because of just how many babies they’ve delivered and the expertise they demonstrated in seeing me through from disaster to two darling daughters — never wavered.

There’s plenty that AVH does well, and that includes recognizing its own limitations. As one hospital staffer said to me last week, “We can’t be everything to everybody, but we’re working on being the best at what we have.”

That’s more than a bit of welcome news, because while I resigned myself to frequent visits east in 2014, a few of those trips might have been spared had AVH been further along in its expansion. Stereotactic ultrasounds, like the one I drove 400 miles round-trip to have done at Invision Sally Jobe in Denver in January 2014, could be performed at AVH, for example, but they simply don’t have the space for the necessary equipment and personnel.

AVH can’t do whole-breast ultrasounds, either. And depending on to whom you speak, their MRI and ultrasound machines could use modernizing, even if the software gets updated as often as new versions become available. A women’s center is in the plans for Phase III-B of the hospital’s expansion, although it’s not funded yet and it wouldn’t happen until the completion of III-A, which won’t break ground until this spring at the earliest.

There’s something to be said about fighting sprawl in a community cherished for its small-town charm, although those opposed to the additional expansion of AVH might consider relocating even farther from civilization. While AVH knows its limitations, it also knows that the space it had, has and is getting soon still isn’t sufficient to keep too many people from driving to the Front Range or flying to other large cities for basic procedures. It’s not trying to master all trades, just add a few more simple yet meaningful ones to the list of what it can offer in addition to a sympathetic smile after a long trip to Denver.

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