Judge Brings First-Hand Knowledge to the Table
When it comes to her views on health care, Hudspeth County Judge Becky Dean-Walker can recall several defining moments.
For instance, her stance on health care and volunteerism was inspired in the early 1980s when she stopped to offer help at the scene of a serious car accident on the freeway near her home in McNary, located at the intersection of Interstate 10 and State Highway 20 in southwestern Hudspeth County.
Dean-Walker and her husband, Dennis Ray, had just moved from a ranch near Alamogordo, N.M., to Fort Hancock, Texas, to partner on another ranch and launch their own heavy equipment dirt-moving company.
Dean-Walker was behind the wheel of her old white Chevrolet single-cab pickup, headed toward home. The sun was shining brightly in a calm, clear blue sky – no weather to speak of. As she approached a familiar curve in the road, Dean-Walker came upon a devastating accident, a one-car rollover involving a navy blue Suburban carrying 10 passengers, some of whom were ejected from the car, including children.
“Most were injured, some severely,” she remembered. “At least two were killed.”
When Dean-Walker stopped to help, she immediately noted the response team was short-handed.
“I realized they needed people to help volunteer,” she recounted. “Most of the volunteers were older people and some were not in good health. I was young, strong, and healthy and had some spare time on my hands.” Consequently, in 1985 she became certified as an emergency medical technician and ran with the volunteer ambulance in Fort Hancock for eight years.
The volunteers responded to every emergency call from the sheriff’s office including injuries at sporting events, drownings, and general sick needs; the majority of calls resulted from car wrecks on the interstate.
The ambulance service had no monetary support, but instead relied on fund-raisers such as bake sales and donations. The volunteers purchased their own meals and uniforms, Dean-Walker reminisced, “basically a jacket that had my patches on it!”
Another defining moment – this one underscoring the life-saving nature of the job – came when Dean-Walker had to make a tough choice. A call came in after dark, and no one answered the emergency ring except Dean-Walker.
“I was alone,” she related. “We were not supposed to run unless there were two certified people, so I told them I could not go alone. They said it was serious, so I went.”
The call involved a car crash with a serious injury. Dean-Walker attended the patient all the way to an El Paso hospital, and emergency surgery was immediately performed.
“The doctor told me the patient would have died if he had been any later,” Dean-Walker recalled. “I broke the rules, but I saved a life. I was so busy, the person who was driving the ambulance was not even who I thought it was!”
In fact, on many occasions Dean-Walker drove the ambulance herself because some of the older women were uncomfortable driving. However, these same older ladies “had a fit” when Dean-Walker drove the ambulance transporting a friend who was in labor while Dean-Walker herself was seven months pregnant!
A third defining moment ultimately resulted in Dean-Walker retiring from ambulance runs – although she has yet to retire from serving the public. The volunteer crew came upon an older-model van turned upside down with a severely overweight woman lying inside.
“We were trying to lift her on the backboard, but every time we would almost get her out she would began to scream saying she was in pain, and we would set her back down,” Dean-Walker described. “We were in effect only hurting her worse because we were prolonging the agony for everyone, so the last time she screamed, I hollered at the others to continue to lift.”
Dean-Walker continued, but the other volunteers did not.
“I knew immediately that I was hurt,” she said, “but I bore up until we got her to the hospital.”
Dean-Walker experienced back pain for several months before visiting a doctor, who told her that she was healing and to “give it time.” In fact, Dean-Walker gave it 25 years!
She continued her regular activity, even running with the ambulance for about four more years. Dean-Walker also rode horseback, as usual, all the while collecting advice from friends and specialists on the lingering back pain. She visited with a chiropractor and endured therapy, traction and massages. Several times she appeared to be headed toward knee or hip surgery, but would later learn it was all referred pain from her lower back. When the pain forced her to retire from active ambulance runs, Dean-Walker continued supporting the effort by serving on the volunteer ambulance board and helping with fund-raisers.
In January 2010, Dean-Walker noted numbness in her leg and hip, along with intense knee pain, and she consulted again with a doctor, who recommended an operation.
“I went to Dallas for surgery,” she reported. “I went on Sunday, saw the doctor on Monday, had surgery on Tuesday, and came home on Wednesday in a pickup! We would stop every two hours and I would walk around for a while. I was supposed to take two weeks off. I held court in one week. I was sore, but it was such a relief that I felt I could do anything.
“Now I am still old,” she quipped, “still have some backaches, but that particular problem is fixed…my Daddy always said if a person didn’t have some kind of backache, he was abnormal!”
Dean-Walker’s perspective on health care is not limited to her personal experience, albeit her time as a volunteer was defining. She now has the perspective of an elected official.
In November 1986, Dean-Walker was appointed Hudspeth County Precinct 2 justice of the peace while she was still serving with the volunteer ambulance. Interestingly, she gave birth to son Clifton Kyle on Nov. 18, 1986, and then was sworn in on Jan. 1, 1987.
Since Dean-Walker was appointed, she was required to run in the first general election to keep the office. She lost the election by 19 votes but won again two years later as a write-in candidate, two to one. Altogether, Dean-Walker served as justice of the peace for almost eight years, during which time she obtained 140 hours of training and took a course to become a paralegal. While in office she lobbied the county “to build a decent office” to house the justice of the peace, deputy sheriff, and Department of Public Safety in Fort Hancock.
“A beautiful municipal building was completed not too long before I moved to Sierra Blanca,” she indicated. “I took great pride in that job, and I am so glad I had the experience.”
While serving as justice of the peace, Dean-Walker and her family adopted 19-month-old Whitney AnnaMae from Juarez, Mexico. When she and her husband purchased a small ranch near Sierra Blanca and moved out of her precinct, she resigned her office.
“I was a ‘politic-free’ woman for a few years when I made the mistake of attending commissioners court and decided to make a run for the county judge’s seat,” Dean-Walker bantered. “I became the first woman to be county judge in Hudspeth County by defeating two very nice gentlemen, both personal friends to this day.” She started her third term as county judge on Jan. 1, 2011.
Dean-Walker has been a county official for 16-plus years, and when it comes to health care, she is a proponent of emergency services districts (ESDs), especially in rural areas. ESDs are created by voters in an area to fund fire protection, emergency medical services, or both. More than 300 districts are operating in Texas, and more are added at almost every uniform election date.
In the 1980s, ESD #1 was formed to serve the Fort Hancock area, Dean-Walker said. However, this covered just a small portion of the county, some 4,000 square miles in size.
When Dean-Walker moved near Sierra Blanca, the ambulance service was sparse, relying on volunteers. Dell City ran a volunteer service, as did Hueco Village in northwest Hudspeth County.
“Just like all volunteer services, they would become defunct, and then someone would pick it up and go again,” she summarized. “Up and down, but there were more down periods than up periods.”
Interstate 10 runs the full length of one side of Hudspeth County, while State Highway 62/180 runs the full length on the other end, Dean-Walker emphasized, “and when there is a car wreck on one of these highways in certain places, it is sometimes hours before there is help.”
Several years ago citizens in Dell City formed an ambulance service, and then recently initiated the creation of Emergency Services District #2, which covers all acreage outside ESD #1.
“We have just appointed a board for ESD #2 and are hoping to get it off the ground,” Dean-Walker stated. Sierra Blanca, the Hudspeth County seat, is approximately100 miles from El Paso. The hospital in Van Horn, located in neighboring Culberson County, is about 35 miles the opposite direction and sends patients with serious injuries back to El Paso.
“Even when not too serious, you still have to find a way to get the patients to Van Horn,” the judge explained. “That is why the Emergency Services District works well for us. We don’t have a hospital or a hospital district. It takes a while to get set up and start collecting money, but when managed correctly I would recommend it.”
Each of the county’s three small towns now houses a grant-funded clinic.
“The county helps where we can, providing buildings rent free, etc., but we aren’t running the clinics,” Dean-Walker added. “I would advise counties without much revenue to be very careful going overboard trying to provide more medical services than they can handle.”
Dean-Walker was volunteering with the ambulance service when Fort Hancock launched its ESD, and she has witnessed the progression of the district and services provided.
When it comes to the financial angle, she advised fellow officials to ensure funds are handled appropriately and to be adamant about regular audits.
“At this point in the game, personally, I would recommend an ESD to other counties,” the judge concluded. “It has worked well in Hudspeth County.” By Julie Anderson