Dr. Erin Baker outside the Ocracoke Health Center. Photo: C. Leinbach/Ocracoke Observer

By TL Grace West

Imagine experiencing Ocracoke for the first time with a medical degree and a 10-month-old daughter, arriving to interview for the sole doctor position at the Ocracoke Health Center.

That is what Dr. Erin Baker did 12 years ago, fresh from completing her medical school and residency training in general family medicine.

What brought her here?

Baker wanted to be closer to her family who had moved to Manteo (about two and a half hours from the island).

Now it is time again for her to be even closer to her mother and move to Manteo and join the Outer Banks Family Medical Practice.

Her last day serving Ocracoke will be Sept. 21 and a community potluck dinner for her will be held at 6 p.m. on Wednesday, Sept. 14, in the Berkley Barn.

These 12 years have been a win-win for both Baker and the Ocracoke community.

“Having up-to-date skills from just completing my training was extremely beneficial to meet the varying medical needs of the residents and visitors of the island,” Baker said about her arrival on the island. “I am also grateful for how this community continued to train me in so many ways and extended love even in the hard times.” 

Although all change can be challenging and bumpy, Baker is confident the transition to a new doctor will be fine.

“Largely because the mission and vision for the health center is clear, and the staff are absolutely wonderful,” she said. 

That mission stresses that quality, affordable care will be provided for residents and visitors regardless of their ability to pay. 

Many people agree with former Hyde County Commissioner Tom Pahl’s assessment.

“During Hurricane Dorian recovery, Dr. Baker was a key member of the recovery team during an extremely challenging time,” he said.

Baker herself did not relish the aftermath of Dorian. With the center damaged and undergoing repairs, she and her staff operated out of temporary modular units installed by the state EMS.

“That was a challenge,” she said, noting that the temporary setup had no bathrooms or running water. “It was third world.”

Sue Pentz, chair of the center’s board of directors and co-proprietor of the Harborside Motel, remembers checking on Baker during that tumultuous time and seeing her smile and say, “I’m fine; we’re doing what we’re supposed to be doing.”

Many people have commented on how remarkably personable Baker is while still maintaining professionalism.

Following Hurricane Dorian, Ocracoke went directly into dealing with an unprecedented pandemic that affected every aspect of life on the island. Again, Baker and her staff played a key part in the ongoing response to COVID-19.

Again and again, Baker rose to the occasion of the unique aspects of the only medical facility on the island.

Some of her decisions included when to send patients on a three-hour ambulance ride to the nearest hospital in Nags Head or call the helicopter medical transport for a 45-minute flight to regional hospitals.

Dr. Baker on her way to visit another patient in the Ocracoke Health Center. Photo: C. Leinbach/Ocracoke Observer

Pentz stressed how Baker keeps the big picture in mind: that of providing quality care.

When I talked with various island residents, their feedback included comments about how they valued Baker’s ability to persist until a clear diagnosis was reached; the way she says, “There is no shame in taking needed medicine”; her sense of humor; her concern for the caregiver as well as the patient; the way she allowed time for questions; her eye contact; and her willingness to be direct about planning ahead for future care, and her skill and compassion toward patients of all ages.

Health Center CEO Joe Rockenstein and the board of directors are conducting a search for a medical provider who will be a good fit for the unique needs of Ocracoke.

A replacement has not been named as of press time, but health care will be provided by Angela Miller, a licensed nurse practitioner who joined the staff in October, and Jolene Jernigan, also licensed nurse practitioner, who has been a health center staff member for several years.

Both practitioners can write prescriptions and are experienced health providers.

In addition to the health center, medical care is provided by the Hyde County EMS 24/7 by calling 911.

Also, Gail Covington, FNP (certified family nurse practitioner), provides health care consultations and treatment on Ocracoke and Hatteras through her Island Mobile Medical Care. Call 252-996-0511.

Noteworthy, especially since we are in the midst of hurricane season, is that health care is not readily available if there’s a hurricane.

Hyde County requires EMS to evacuate for mandatory evacuations (though not for visitor-only evacuations), and although the health center board does not require staff to evacuate, most staff do leave the island.

Baker is confident that Ocracoke will fare well as she moves on to another chapter.

“This is not my center,” she said. “It is the Ocracoke Health Center and positive changes are ahead, especially with a pharmacy that will serve the general public aiming to open late spring or early summer 2023.”