Polk County internist navigates around U.S. 64 by plane

Polk County internist navigates around U.S. 64 by plane

February 5th, 2010 by Adam Crisp in News

The long, winding drive along U.S. Highway 64 from Dr. Mahmood Saddiqui's Cleveland, Tenn., home to eastern Polk County is a commute he's cursed many times during his 16 years practicing medicine.

But today the internist, whose office is in Copperhill, Tenn., is relying on a private plane to get to work every day. It's the quickest route in light of a Nov. 10 rock slide on U.S. 64.

For roughly a month following the rock slide, Dr. Saddiqui and his nurse practitioner Jennifer Grisham endured four-hour daily round-trip drives to their Copperhill medical practice.

"I will never speak badly about River Road again," Dr. Saddiqui said. "It may have been winding, but it's so much better than the alternative."

The massive rock slide just west of the TVA No. 2 dam closed the road and forced the long commute for many residents who live, shop and seek medical care in Cleveland, Chattanooga and other points west of Polk County.

The Tennessee Department of Transportation says the road should reopen by March 31.

The plane trip takes just 15 minutes aboard a Crystal Air charter service. Dr. Saddiqui and Ms. Grisham aren't alone on the flight. The $75 round-trip has been very popular, said David Harmond, the Cleveland airport manager.

"We aren't making a lot of money off these flights," Mr. Harmond said. "But we've seen a lot of business since the rock slide."

Residents have pointed to the rock slide as proof that the area needs an alternate route to U.S. 64. A billion-dollar project, Corridor K, has been discussed -- but not built -- for years.

Despite the convenience of flying, Dr. Saddiqui said there are some days when he can't fly. If weather is cloudy, he must take the long commute around U.S. 64, so patients must wait even later to see him, he said.

But in Copperhill, his services are badly needed. Both eastern Polk cities, Copperhill and Ducktown, are served by Copper Basin Medical Center, and there are only three doctors and three nurse practitioners outside of the hospital for the roughly 1,000 residents who live in those two cities.

By the numbers

* 1 hour: Average commute from Cleveland to Copperhill before the rock slide

* 2 hours: Average commute time with new detour

* 15 minutes: Flight time from Cleveland to Copperhill

* $75: Round-trip ticket price

* $22: Gas cost for commute in 22 mpg vehicle

"(Dr. Saddiqui) has a very large practice here and he's maintained that through many rough times because he's so dedicated," said Ray Ford, the hospital's CEO. "He's the kind of person you can trust with your life."

Dr. Saddiqui said he never considered closing his practice in Copperhill after the rock slide and Ms. Grisham said she never considered finding a job elsewhere.

"Our patients are just amazing and Dr. Saddiqui is amazing boss," Ms. Grisham said. "I couldn't imagine working anywhere else."