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DENMARK – Regional Medical Center officials announced health care is coming back to Bamberg and Barnwell counties as they cut the ribbon to a new emergency medical center on Monday morning.

"This has been a long time coming," RMC President and CEO Charles Williams told those gathered. "There has been a lot of work that has gone into this project. This has been a team effort. This has been a work of love."

"We are bringing health care back to an area that has been without health care for a long time," Williams said. "This is not about RMC. This is about people who need care."

Political leaders and dignitaries from Orangeburg, Calhoun, Bamberg and Barnwell counties came together to celebrate the opening of the Bamberg-Barnwell Emergency Medical Center. RMC is owned by Orangeburg and Calhoun counties.

"Top of the line" and “state-of-the art” were some of the words used to describe the facility located at 1524 Barnwell Highway (Highway 70 between Denmark and Barnwell). The facility will officially open at 7 a.m. Monday, April 8.

"It is goal, it is our honor to serve this community," Williams said. "Health is a right, care is a right and we are honored to be here to serve you."

The emergency department will be open 24 hours a day and seven days a week. Outpatient services will be offered from 7:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday.

The outpatient side includes lab, ultrasound, radiology and CT. All these services will also be available to the emergency department.

The $8.6 million, 20,500-square-foot emergency department features nine observation rooms and will be equipped to handle ambulance and walk-in traffic. The facility includes consultation rooms, triage rooms and observation rooms.

Incoming patients will access not just emergency care, but diagnostic services and a pharmacy.

The facility also has an ambulance bay as well as a helicopter pad for LifeNet's air transportation.

It will have five doctors and is projected to employ approximately 50. Indirectly, the center is projected to produce a total of 128 jobs and have a $15.6 million impact annually, according to a Southern Carolina Economic Development Alliance economic analysis.

The project was funded by the state through a one-time, $3.6 million Transformation Fund Grant and additional funds resulting from the region’s designation as a persistent poverty area. The U.S. Department of Agriculture provided a rural community facilities grant for $388,400 to purchase equipment for the operation of the center.

The opening of the center comes as welcome news for a community that has seen health care challenges.

Bamberg County closed its emergency room and hospital in 2012. Barnwell County’s hospital closed in 2016.

Eula Hartwell, a Denmark resident, says she has had to travel all the way to Orangeburg for health care.

"I think it is beautiful," said Hartwell, who got a chance to tour the building.

Blackville resident Betty Thompson called the new center a blessing, saying health issues can creep up on a person when they’re 68 years old.

"This has been on my mind, praying that something would come closer to us," Thompson said. "The population in Blackville is an older population. To have medical assistance close to you is amazing."

Denmark Mayor Gerald Wright said the emergency room is a big asset to the community.

Most Denmark residents have had to travel to Orangeburg or Aiken to receive their medical care over the past few years, Wright said. "The short amount of time in getting service and care could be a difference of life and death. This is welcome."

Officials hope that water and sewer infrastructure installed for the facility may also attract other industry and economic development to the area.

S.C. Rep. Lonnie Hosey, D-Barnwell, said at the age of 72 he worries about something happening at 2 a.m. and having to travel an hour for medical care.

He also stressed the importance of people using the emergency facility, noting not enough residents used the Barnwell and Bamberg hospitals in the past.

"If we continue to go someplace else, this will fall in," he said. "We must utilize what we have here. We must."

"If we use it when we need it, then it can be prosperous in our community and grow," he said. "If we don't take care of ourselves in rural South Carolina, no one else will. When people complain, don't follow what they say. Be a leader yourself."

S.C. Sen. Brad Hutto, D-Orangeburg, said there was lot of skepticism about being able to get the emergency center started, but S.C. Sen. John Matthews, D-Bowman, and the state Department of Health and Human Services had a vision and plan to take available funds and build an emergency department.

"We all had to work together," Hutto said. "We all realized there was a need and it needed to be solved."

Southern Carolina Economic Development Alliance President and CEO Danny Black said, "This is going to create immediately 50 jobs, but you can see we have plenty of room for growth. We certainly can get more support industry in here for this operation."

He said the center could help attract industry.

"To get industry, you have to have medical care, you have to have education, you got to have shopping and recreational opportunities," he said. "Anything that brings up the base and makes an area more attractive, we are all for it."

Orangeburg County Council Chairman Johnnie Wright said the emergency center is a great example of teamwork.

"Everyone was a little skeptical about doing certain things, but at the end of the day we all need each other," he said. "The climate is changing when it comes to medical care and by having that over there, it should help us with overcrowding in Orangeburg County."

Calhoun County Councilman John Nelson said council fully supported the medical center.

"This is an important thing for the whole area - a medical desert - if you will," Nelson said. "They have a real opening out here where this type of care was not available anymore. We support tRMC and we want this to be a money-making facility obviously, but we understand there is a great need down here as well. It is much needed."

Dr. John Ross, lead surgeon and medical director at the RMC Dialysis Access Institute, said people commonly ask why a medical center is “in the middle of nowhere.”

"It is not in the middle of nowhere. It is in the middle of somewhere where it is needed," Ross said.

S.C. Rep. Justin Bamberg, D-Bamberg, recalled when he was a student at the University of South Carolina and received a phone call from his father early one morning.

"My mom had to be rushed to the then-Bamberg County hospital," Bamberg said. "But for it being always open, I don't think my mother would be here."

"Today represents not just the possibility to save lives for those who need it and to provide employment to those people who need jobs, but today represents hope," he said. "To those who live in Bamberg or Barnwell County, you understand how important hope is because unfortunately we live in an area where sometimes we have so much on our shoulders we feel we don't have much else but hope."

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Contact the writer: gzaleski@timesanddemocrat.com or 803-533-5551. Check out Zaleski on Twitter at @ZaleskiTD.

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Staff Writer

Gene Zaleski is a reporter/staff writer with The Times and Democrat.

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