By ELAINE SLOCUMB, RN, Ph.D.
Did you know that Swain County has the shortest life expectancy in the state? In 2022 the average life expectancy in Swain County was 70.6 years. For comparison, the statewide average was 77.7 years, 7.1 years longer than Swain. Of the 100 counties in NC, Swain County also ranked low in general health outcomes (96th) and health-related quality of life (80th).
These findings were gathered and reported by a trustworthy source, The University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute (https://www.countyhealthrankings.org/reports/2022-county-health-rankings-national-findings-report). But it is also fair to argue that statistics do not tell the whole story. You may be asking yourself – But why so low?
I volunteered for eight years at the Swain County Caring Corner, the free clinic that was located in the Restoration House in Bryson City. That experience taught me so much about the heart and resilience of our mountain community. And as a nurse with advanced education, at the clinic, I was able to see beyond textbooks and statistics and feel the human toll of not having access to regular health/dental care. Here are just a few examples – a snapshot of who we treated: people with severe diabetes who were unable to afford insulin, syringes, or blood sugar home testing…those with high blood pressure or kidney disease after years of undiagnosed high blood pressure…folks with unbearable pain from decaying/loose teeth…individuals with mental health such as depression or anxiety (sometimes complicated by self-medication with alcohol or substances) who were struggling to stay alive. We all know these people – they work in our local businesses, and they are our neighbors, friends, and family members. Perhaps they’re someone like you.
Clearly, there are many factors that produced the outcomes reported in the study and those we treated in the clinic. Is it mainly about low income or lack of health insurance? Has it got to do with poor nutrition and a high rate of food insecurity? Are there not enough local doctors, dentists, nurse practitioners, and mental health professionals? What about smoking or alcohol use? Is it related to drugs or homelessness? Does it have something to do with not having a full-service hospital or mental health services in our county? Are rates of heart and lung disease higher here than in other counties? Do people need more education about health (known as health literacy)? The questions are nearly endless.
I am a member of a group called Indivisible Swain. Our mission is to engage in peaceful, persistent discussions with government officials and others to act for the common good. To that end, we have been planning two free programs. The first event is a Health Forum/Discussion to be held on Oct. 12 from 7 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. in the County Commission Board Room in the Administration Building. The second event will be a Health Fair on Oct. 12 from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. at the Bryson City United Methodist Church. The public is invited to attend one or both of the events.