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Special Report: The Long Road to Recovery

TYLER, Texas (KETK) - Tyler is known as a medical hub for East Texas, with three major hospitals that are constantly growing. Despite this, some parents with sick children say pediatric options in the area are limited, forcing them to drive two to four hours to get the care their children need. 

"When he took one listen to his heart he said you need to go straight to Children's, there's something very, very wrong," mother Heather Rucker recalls her worst nightmare happening.

"He was diagnosed that day with acute lymphoblastic leukemia and was given less than 24 hours to live," Rucker said.

She got the news about her son Sawyer when he was just seven months old.

"We just began to get everyone we knew to pray and hit the ground running," Rucker said. "There was no time to freak out, there was no time to panic."

Almost three years later, Sawyer finished chemotherapy and is doing better than ever.

But, he still has monthly check ups that require a drive to Dallas.

"We can't even be cared for in the local E.R.s here because they don't have a port needle small enough or is anyone trained to handle a child his age," Rucker said.

It's a problem other sick children are facing too.

11-year-old Lilly Hall was complaining of stomach pain. Her pediatrician in Tyler found an abscess and referred her to Children's Hospital in Dallas.

Before her appointment, her abscess burst.

"They rushed us to Children's Hospital because we went to a hospital out here but the doctor wasn't able to help us, so we had to be rushed to Children's and that's when they diagnosed her with Crohn's a week and a half later," Lilly's mother Tamara Hall said.

Hall takes her daughter for infusions for her Crohn's disease in Dallas every two months.

"There's no opportunity for her to see any kind of specialist out here," Hall said.

There are three major hospitals in Tyler; Christus Trinity Mother Frances Health System, UT Health Northeast, and East Texas Medical Center (ETMC).

"Tyler's known as a medical city, and it just seems like that's a big piece that's missing," Rucker said.

These parents tell us they want a solution.

"That's a constant conversation and where to find the resources to make that happen and what kind of environment do we have to create in order to be able to attract the very best?" UT Health Northeast President Dr. Kirk Calhoun said.

UT Health Northeast offers general pediatric services, and specializations in pediatric pulmonary care, allergy services and psychiatry.

He says the ability to expand services is driven by educational opportunities.

"Because we have now a psychiatric residency training program, it's been easy for us to recruit pediatric psychiatrists," Dr. Calhoun said.

When it comes to infant care, Christus Trinity Mother Frances Health System has the only level three neonatal intensive care unit in Tyler.

"We care for any gestational aged baby and provide prolonged ventilator support," Neonatal ICU Director Brenda Morris said. "We also have whole body cooling and inhale nitric oxide which are kind of specialized therapies."

Morris says they provide the highest level of care they can, but in certain situations they transfer babies out of East Texas.

"There's no pediatric surgeon east of Dallas or north of Houston," Morris said.

She sees firsthand the need for pediatric specialization in East Texas.

"We have excellent adult specialists and excellent adult outcomes and I think the pediatric area is the next area of expansion," Morris said.

She says the NICU is currently able to give care to patients through independent specialists who come to Tyler.

"We have infectious disease, we have great cardiology support, we have neurology support," she said.

They're also in the process of recruiting pediatric endocrinologists.

ETMC in Tyler also benefits from independent specialists who come to the area.

"I'm with pediatric heart specialists it's a group of pediatric cardiologists subspecialty," pediatric cardiologist Shannon Blalock said.

She used to travel from Dallas to East Texas to see patients a few times a week, but is now here permanently.

"Because there is such a big need out here they have hired me and I've been here for almost 4 years now," Blalock said. "I live here in East Texas and see patients in Tyler, Longview and occasionally Lufkin."

She says she sees the need for more, but it's easier said than done.

"There is a high medicaid population which I see a lot of patients with medicaid and it's part of what we think that we should do and want to do, but there's other sub-specialties that that's hard for them to do," she said.

Blalock sees patients at all of the hospitals, a step in the right direction for getting East Texas children the care they need.

"Because I'm here instead of shipping some of those babies from the neonatal ICU to Dallas to be evaluated, I can evaluate them here and some of those babies get to stay," Blalock said.

ETMC says starting in mid-May, pediatric specialists from Cook Children's out of Fort Worth will start coming to Tyler offering specialized care in endocrinology, diabetes, genetics, hematology and oncology.

It's something that could help parents by making simple treatments available here.

Hospital leaders in Tyler are hopeful for future expansion.

"All the hospitals in Tyler, I don't want to speak for the health science center here, are identifying how to deliver more robust services throughout the entire community," Dr. Calhoun said.

Until then, families wait.

"For all the kids here in East Texas that have so many different problems, I would love to see them get help at home!" Hall said.

As for the possibility of a children's hospital ever being in East Texas, the experts say it would take time to recruit the best doctors and garner the necessary support, but it very well could be in the area's future.


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