Newport Oncologist Battles Hospital Over Firing

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(Host) Support is building in the Newport area for a cancer doctor who has been told to leave North Country Hospital.

Administrators plan to replace North Country’s oncologist with two part-time doctors who will travel from Dartmouth-Hitchcock in Lebanon two days a week.

The patients of the Newport doctor are up in arms, as VPR’s Charlotte Albright found when they protested at the hospital’s annual board meeting.

(Albright) Here’s how North Country Hospital CEO Claudio Fort explains the decision to replace full-time hematologist/oncologist Leslie Lockridge with part-time traveling physicians:

(Fort) "I looked at the oncology service and really saw that we had a service that was taking care of about 25 patients per week. And the typical oncologist will probably see about 12 patients per day. It was something we were losing money on, or subsidizing. A very important service for the community, but it was something that we said, ‘How can we decrease the cost and strengthen the service?’"

(Albright) Fort declines to reveal the details or the cost of the new contract with part-time replacements for Lockridge.

Most of his patients question whether the plan -which also calls for a new full-time nurse practitioner – will really be more cost-effective.

And they say they don’t believe treatment for a life- threatening disease should be reduced to dollars and cents.

Lockridge agreed, as he wolfed down his lunch at a local restaurant and recalled the day two weeks ago when CEO Fort told him to pack up his office.

(Lockridge) "Well, I was shocked. Knowing that they were going to start mailing notices as soon as our meeting was over, I began calling patients to try to let them know personally, rather than having them hear [it] from an impersonal mailing."

(Albright) What he heard back in those phone calls was, "Don’t leave. Stay and fight. We’ll fight for you."

(Lockridge) "That included people that were facing much bigger issues than finding a job. The kind of courage that my patients displayed, the kind of example that they set, there’s no way you can say no to that."

(Albright) Dozens of patients sang his praises at a public meeting held by the hospital and on a Facebook page. They also mounted a protest at the hospital’s annual board meeting in the same restaurant where Lockridge had lunch. Cheryl Hryckiewicz showed up early.

(Hryckiewicz) "The type of cancer that I had was a very life-threatening cancer. It would have spread rapidly had it not been found at a very, very early stage."

(Albright) Hryckiewicz says Lockridge has been literally a life-saver – not just physically, but emotionally, as well.

(Hryckiewicz) "He was there for me and I trusted him and I still trust him and I will always trust him."

(Albright) Scores of patients have been telling similar stories in their attempt to keep their doctor on staff at the hospital.

Some resent, as they put it, "sending local money to Dartmouth," and losing full-time care. And a few are lashing out at an administration they say is waging a personality battle against the popular Lockridge – a charge CEO Fort denies.

Lockridge says, if he has to, he would try to open his own private practice in Newport. But he’s not sure he can afford to do it.

For VPR News, I’m Charlotte Albright.

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