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Not brand new, but they’ll take it


The collective sigh of relief is almost audible at the Nye Regional Medical Center — and it’s not coming just from the patients.

The Nye County Commission recently approved spending $55,000 for a new X-ray machine for the diminutive medical center in the central Nevada community, located on U.S. Highway 95 about 200 miles northwest of Las Vegas. It was welcome news to the hospital’s staff, which has been watching its old X-ray machine fade like a dying neon sign.

In this case, "new" is a relative term.

"It’s new to us," hospital administrator Charlie Mann says. Although several years old, technologically speaking the machine is light years ahead of the current model, which was uncrated when the hospital opened in the 1970s. "We’ve gotten 35 years of service out of that X-ray machine. The people who have maintained it have run out of parts from the last two machines they’ve been cannibalizing for parts to fix it. The model doesn’t even exist anymore."

Why make a fuss over a new X-ray machine?

Because this is Tonopah. You are a long way from the next medical facility. Although Nye County Commission Chairwoman Joni Eastley likes to say Tonopah is "in the middle of everywhere," it’s three hours northwest of Las Vegas, even farther south of Reno and Elko.

On U.S. 95 between Las Vegas and Hawthorne, a stretch of 300 miles, there’s precisely one emergency room. Nye Regional features two gurneys in the E.R., 14 acute-care beds, two nurses, one doctor, one respiratory therapist and one X-ray technician. But it takes many of the same trauma cases, especially auto accidents, seen by big-city hospitals.

"We get the whole gamut," Mann says. "Naturally, with two beds in the emergency room, if a family of four rolls over their car, to me that’s a mass casualty incident. Out here we practice what’s called frontier medicine. That’s even more remote than rural medicine. To work in health care in a rural-frontier setting is radically different from working in an urban setting, mainly because you have to wear so many hats."

And you take your benefactors where you find them. In the case of the almost new X-ray machine, the funding originated with the Yucca Mountain Project, which has annually poured an average of $11 million into Nye County for a variety of quality of life improvements in recent years. And, some would argue, to soften its image with a skeptical public.

For Commissioner Eastley, an unabashed proponent of the politically endangered nuclear waste repository, it’s another example of the county benefiting from the Department of Energy project. Unlike a majority of residents in the urban areas of Clark and Washoe counties, most rural Nevadans aren’t worried about Yucca Mountain’s safety issues. Eastley sees the project as potentially creating an economic boost for her constituents in a county where new jobs are hard to come by.

Eastley points to the X-ray machine as one of many examples of the Yucca Mountain Project already paying dividends to rural Nevada residents.

At the hospital, Mann has already started laying the groundwork for the new machine, including installing new wiring in the lab to accommodate this century’s technology.

"The difference it will make for us is literally life and death," Mann says. "We can do what we do right now with what we have right now, but it’s old, and the quality of the image we will get will be so much better."

Politically speaking, these days the Yucca Mountain Project is on its deathbed. Under pressure from Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, the government continues to cut funding to the project. That’s a good thing to those who want Yucca’s scalp, but those cuts also have an impact on funding slated to benefit places such as Tonopah.

Reid’s political clout wins him big headlines in Las Vegas and Reno and Washington, but it makes him few friends in Tonopah and other towns that dot Nevada’s vast outback.

The good news is, if Reid or one of his opponents takes a spill on U.S. 95 while on the campaign trail, there will be an almost new X-ray machine waiting for them in Tonopah.


John L. Smith (Smith@review-journal.com) is a Review-Journal columnist.

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