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Toby's Take: It's Great in Great Bend

Photo of Great Bend Final Fridays looking at a street full of people

May 31, 2022

Editor’s Note: This is the first of 2 blog posts on Toby’s visit to The University of Kansas Health System Great Bend Campus.

Recently, a few of us accompanied Darrin Kistler, senior director of radiation services at the health system, to a community presentation. The economic development committee of the Overland Park Chamber of Commerce invited Darrin to give a talk on our new Proton Therapy Center.

The University of Kansas Health System opened the proton center in April and began treating patients the last week of May. Proton therapy is a targeted form of radiation therapy that uses a precise, powerful beam of protons to deliver radiation directly to the tumor – destroying cancer cells while sparing healthy tissues. This highly specialized form of radiation therapy is available only at 39 proton centers across the country.

The conversation at the event turned to both economic development in the Kansas City area, and the plight of small Kansas and Missouri towns that often lose young talent to the bigger cities.

“Good for us,” said Kevin Walker, the Overland Park chamber’s vice president of public policy. “Bad for Kansas.” (Meaning, the loss of talent in those towns, not the addition of proton therapy now available in this region.)

The topic was top of mind for Darrin and me. He grew up in tiny Udall, Kansas, in southeast Kansas. I had just returned from my first visit as a health system employee to our Great Bend Campus.

Old and young alike want Great Bend to thrive, as does the health system. Good thing we plan to be there as a member of the community for the long haul.

Great Bend's 'going in the right direction'

The University of Kansas Health System Great Bend Campus comprises a hospital, Great Bend Medical Pavilion and several nearby practices and services including St. Rose Medical Pavilion. Health system staff also operate Central Kansas Orthopedic Group and Golden Belt Home Health and Hospice.

Stacy Parks, a director of marketing, showed me the Great Bend sites along with Regan Reif, strategic marketing manager for the Great Bend Campus. Walking around downtown Great Bend with Regan is like lunching with a celebrity. Everybody waves at her or says hello.

Lunch? Great Bend Coffee.

We grabbed a bite there with Sara Hayden, president, Great Bend Economic Development, Inc., who might roll her eyes at the words “young” and “go-getter.” She’s both (sorry, Sara) and described for us a vision to keep the train moving on what has become true economic development momentum in Great Bend.

Economic momentum is what Midwestern towns need. I haven’t lived in my hometown of Independence, Kansas, since leaving for college in the 1980s. As a former teenage goofball, every time I go back, I keep an eye on the state of that sweet downtown and ask friends adult questions like, “How’s the tax base?” Same in nearby Parsons, Kansas, where my wife, Barbara, grew up. We both dream that someone like Sara might return those towns to their former glory.

Great Bend might not be where it was. But it’s going in the right direction.

Sara and her team have started an event held on the last Friday of the month called “Final Fridays on Forest,” similar to “First Fridays” in Kansas City. We timed our visit to check it out. The Barton County Courthouse, renovated to its former glory, looks west toward a 2-block area of food trucks, a band, giveaways and cornhole games. The event is always weather-dependent. So, in the windy and sometimes dry spring, they pray for rain every other day but Friday nights.

This Final Friday, April-edition, happened to be the night severe storms blew over semitrucks across central Kansas, and a YMCA near Wichita took a direct hit from a tornado. The skies looked ominous, but the rain mostly stayed away. Still, halfway through “Final Fridays on Forest,” we decided to duck into Los Dos Potrillos, also on Forest Street. Soon, the restaurant was full as damaging winds started blowing everything around like the black-and-white opening scenes to The Wizard of Oz. (Point of fact, growing up in rural Kansas, I hate automatic Oz references, too, but the wind really did blow that night.)

Organizers quickly cleared everything out. And by the time I finished my taco salad, the street was empty.

Still, it was not a wasted night.

It was thrilling to see so many people gathered for a community event that didn't exist mere months ago. This is the town where we have our largest wholly owned acute care hospital outside of the Kansas City Campus. A little wind only encouraged Sara and the community to march forward.

And you know what? This middle-aged guy saw a LOT of younger people there. Old and young alike want Great Bend to thrive, as does the health system. Good thing we plan to be there as a member of the community for the long haul.

People in rural communities need quality healthcare, and we're making sure they get it. We also strive to recruit young professionals, who receive training elsewhere, to come back. In fact, we found one named Kyle. More on him in Part 2!

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