The University of South Carolina is partnering with local healthcare systems in different communities across the state to make neurological resources more accessible

SUMTER, S.C. — Currently, more than 120,000 South Carolinians aged 65 and over have Alzheimer’s disease or other dementias, according to Prisma Health.

To address that issue, the University of South Carolina (USC) is working with local healthcare agencies across the state provide neurological care in underserved communities. On Monday, a new brain clinic opened in Sumter at Prisma Health Tuomey Hospital.

USC says South Carolinians are at a greater risk of developing Alzheimer’s and related dementias when compared to other states.

“It’s a heartbreaking disease,” Sen. Katrina Shealy explained. “Alzheimer’s and dementia, they’re both terrible diseases. They’re a disease that affects the family probably as much as they affect the person who has them.”

Shealy says she knows from personal experience. 

“I know in my situation, it’s the day to day activities that I miss,” Shealy said about her husband. “It’s almost like you’ve already lost your loved one. It’s not the same person. Some days my husband doesn’t know who I am, or he thinks I’m his sister, or he thinks I’m…the days I like the most is when he thinks I’m his girlfriend.”

It’s why Shealy is advocating for more accessible neurological healthcare throughout the state, especially in rural areas like Sumter County.

“This is one of those days that’s gonna be remembered in the history of Sumter County for a long time following this,” Speaker of the House Murrell Smith said. 

Smith attended the ribbon cutting in his hometown on Monday for the new brain clinic.

“There are such health disparities across the state. And unfortunately in the rural areas of our state, we see more comorbidities and more problems with patients. And really in order for us to address that, we need to have access to health care,” Smith shared. “Every indication statistic shows that people who have to travel for health care more times than not forgo the access to health care, forgo to treatment if they have to travel. So what we are trying to do in South Carolina is to bring the healthcare to the communities and to the patients of this state and that will help give them access, make them a healthier South Carolina.”

Sumter residents like Julianne and Genevieve Sieger say it will help serve the need.

“That’s amazing. That’s wonderful,” the two agreed. “It’s branching out and it’s helping people that need it.”

Resident Pat Sexton has lived in Sumter since 1963, and says he recognizes that need.

“Like any other small community, we have our problems,” Sexton explained. “And right now a lot of those problems have to be shipped out to get taken care of and if they can put forth people here to improve on that and improve our community then I think it’d be well worth it.”

USC President Michael Amiridis says the university is working to open other brain clinics all across the state.

“Part of our mission as the flagship university of the state is to improve the quality of life across the state,” Amiridis explained. “So by creating this network, which has a hub in Columbia where we will have the best diagnostics in the country, and then having the neurologists across the state will allow us to address the issues.”

In Sumter, Amiridis says the partnership took seven months from the idea’s conception to now the facility being open.

“Seven months from conception to going into operation is a wonderful example of what can we do when the resources are there and where the demand is there and where the University is there also as a priority. So I’m really proud of this project,” Amirdis shared. “It’s important because the more that we delay, more patients will not have access, right? So it’s important for the people who are facing problems with dementia.”

Amiridis says funding came from the state legislature, and hopes there will be more in the future.

“This is just the starting point of what we’re going to see as we bring more focus on to brain health and brain services in the state,” Smith shared.

As the aging population continues to grow, Shealy says the need is increasing.

“You look at the aging population in South Carolina and the people that are moving here retiring here, this is an important issue,” Shealy explained. “And just to see it come to fruition where it’s all over the state, it’s not just centralized in one place, means a lot you know, so people that have never had this opportunity before, to you know, to find out, you know, what their issues are, what their symptoms are, what does it mean? How can I get help? It means a lot.”

When it came to her own family, Smith says her experience highlighted the gravity of the issue. When her husband began displaying symptoms of a neurological disease, Shealy said the waitlist to see a doctor was lengthy.

“There are so few neurologists in South Carolina and we had to get on a waiting list. I pulled some strings, I’m not going to lie,” Shealy explained about getting in to see a doctor in Lexington. “There are people out there that have to get on a six month, eight month, you know, 10 month waiting list just to see a doctor. We shouldn’t have to do that…I have the channels to find out that information. Everybody needs that opportunity. You shouldn’t have to know somebody to get help.”

Amiridis says the next brain clinic is set to open in the near future in Seneca. He says the goal is for the university to see how this model works and hopefully implement it to provide more healthcare services in the future to serve the entire state.

“It’s not only neurology that we have. We have a problem for example with OB/GYN across the state. There are all kinds of areas that the specialists can be found only in Columbia, in Greenville, and in Charleston. And so we want to extend these offers to everybody in the state of South Carolina,” Amirdis detailed. “South Carolina for USC is the first time that we’re setting these hub and spoke type of module. I think it’s going to work very well, very quickly. And I think that this will allow us to move further in different other areas.”

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