In some rural areas of Oklahoma, finding a primary care doctor, much less a specialist, can be a struggle. So, a group of cardiovascular specialists in Oklahoma City are bringing heart and vascular care to the far reaches of our state. But they're not traveling hours by car, they're taking flight
"For years we've had what I refer to as the traveling cardiology road show," said Dr. Dwayne Schmidt, an interventional cardiologist in Oklahoma City.
Dr. Schmidt and his team prepare to take their practice on the road, leaving Sundance Airport just after sunrise on a Tuesday.
"It's just kind of part of the day's work," he said.
The team of heart and vascular specialists boards the private plane several times a month to bring specialized cardiac care to western Oklahoma.
"The population of communities that are under 25,000 or 30,000 really can't support a full-time cardiologist," Dr. Schmidt said.
According to the 2018 County Health Rankings, out of Oklahoma's 77 counties, 51 have zero cardiologists. Another 13 have just one and 10 have fewer than 8. In fact, most of the state's 195 licensed cardiologists are located in Oklahoma and Tulsa counties.
"As a consequence, we commonly saw patients later in the stage of disease after many irreversible cardiac events occurred," he said.
So, after a short 25-minute flight from OKC to Woodward, his team arrives to spend the day caring for patients, who are already lined up at a nearby clinic.
"I look at that line of wonderful people as an opportunity to find disease and make someone's life better," Dr. Schmidt said.
They have about 40 appointments scheduled.
"They're a little more laid back out here, they'll come in right off the farm or working cattle," said Jason Crytzer, a physician's assistant on the team.
Former Woodward Mayor Roscoe Hill is among the patients scheduled today. He had a triple bypass surgery nearly 30 years ago.
"I'm so lucky," Hill said. "I probably shouldn't have been here past the nineties really."
Hill admits he's kept up with his follow-up appointments mostly because Dr. Schmidt comes to him, saving him a five-hour round trip to Oklahoma City.
"This would have been a two-day thing for me," he said. "I'd have to stay all night. It's just like having a hospital here really."
The story is similar for Rachel Tidmore. She made the 30-minute drive from Sharon.
"I don't drive in a lot of traffic and so therefore I can manage to get to my doctor's," Tidmore said.
Lewis Carpenter lives in Buffalo and has been coming to the clinic in Woodward for five years following his quadruple bypass surgery.
"There's not very many surgeons or anything in the rural areas anymore, most of them are just local doctors and all they do is just bandage you up and send you on," Carpenter said. "It's real convenient. It saves us a lot of time."
Cryzter has travelled to rural Oklahoma for 20 years.
"They'll put off getting testing done getting in to see the doctor just because of the drive," Crytzer said.
Dr. Schmidt admits with the high cost of flying, there is little to no profit seeing patients here, but that's not why he does it.
"My roots are in Western Oklahoma," he said. "It's the incentive to provide better access to care and see patients living longer, more productive lives."
Hill can attest to that.
"I do play as much golf as I can," said Hill. "I feel better now than I have in a long time."
At the end of a full day of seeing patients, the team boards for the return flight to Oklahoma City, leaving their patients with peace of mind and a strong heart. The team travels to Guymon, in addition to Woodward, logging more than 1600 air miles a month.
They also travel by van to deliver the same care in Chickasha, Pauls Valley and Weatherford, several times per month.