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Now Open for Care: Tanner Medical Center/East Alabama

Wedowee Hospital closes after more than 60 years

 It was a bittersweet day in the town of Wedowee — and certainly, the sweetness prevailed.

At 7 a.m. CT on Tuesday, Nov. 14, the lights came up and the covers were pulled from the bright red “EMERGENCY” signs at Tanner Medical Center/East Alabama while just more than a mile away, staff at Wedowee Hospital waited for test results and prepared to transfer the hospital’s last couple of patients.

By mid-morning, the call went out on the emergency services radio: “Last call for Wedowee Hospital. For 64 years, they have served this area with professional care and selfless compassion. Their dedication to family and community can never be forgotten. Wedowee Hospital has now answered their last call.”

In the minutes before the first patient arrived on transfer, hospital staff joined hands near the ambulance bay and bowed their heads in prayer, asking for guidance and protection for the patient now arriving and all the others who would come through the facility in the years ahead.

The First Patient

Michalyn Winston didn’t intend to be the first patient at Tanner Medical Center/East Alabama — but with her blood pressure still in flux after a fainting spell the day before, she was going to need continued care beyond the closing of Wedowee Hospital.

“They told me when I came to the emergency department Monday morning that the new hospital was going to open today,” said Winston, of Roanoke. “But I didn’t know that I was going to be the first patient.”

 Winston echoed the sentiments of many of those in the community who worked to make the new hospital possible, realizing the importance of having high-quality medical care available close to home.

  “The way I was feeling yesterday, when I was in bad shape, it would’ve taken a while to get to another hospital,” she said. “It’s great to know that we have this kind of hospital here, so close by.”

Winston was still not feeling well, but with her son at her bedside (he checks in on her daily, she said — and often scolds her for her dietary choices), she reflected on her amenities at Wedowee Hospital and where she now sat in her second-floor room at Tanner Medical Center/East Alabama, Winston felt there was no comparison.

  “I love this,” she said. “It’s nice. There’s so much space — I think it’s the best hospital I’ve ever been to.”

  A Logistical Challenge

Bringing a new hospital online while winding down operations at another requires a lot of planning and careful execution.

  Before sunrise, command centers were in place at both Wedowee Hospital and Tanner Medical Center/East Alabama, working in close communication to move staff, resources and, ultimately, patients with as little interruption in care as possible.

  The minutia of the move necessitated careful attention to detail. The planning document that helped guide staff through the move alone was almost 20 pages, specifying how and what equipment and supplies would be relocated from the former hospital to the new one, how command centers would communicate with one another and with the staff at each facility, and finally, how the Wedowee Hospital facility would be closed down and secured.

  Leadership teams from Wedowee and Tanner came together for the planning and execution of the move. For some staff, the transition was emotional; it’s hard to say goodbye to a facility that has so ably served the community for so long, and where so many people have spent their careers or even had significant personal experiences themselves or with loved ones.

  Just more than a mile down the road, other former Wedowee Hospital staff were settling in to their new workspaces and getting ready to deliver care. Registration staff waited at their desks for patients to come in for lab tests and diagnostic imaging procedures. Tanner Security stood vigilant in the atrium. Staff did a final run-through of the emergency department and one last check on the facility’s 15 patient rooms. Nurse educators were on hand to provide a quick refresher to staff about various software and clinical tools. Information technology staff forwarded phone lines from the old hospital to the new one and helped make sure everyone was able to print, scan and access the necessary systems.

  In short, the plan was coming together. By 7:35 a.m. CT, the first patient — Ms. Winston — was en route via an ambulance transport from Wedowee Hospital to Tanner Medical Center/East Alabama. The ambulance zoomed past the facility to the south entrance of the hospital campus and pulled around to the ambulance bay to offload.

  The patient was greeted by an entourage of staff who gathered beneath the ambulance portico outside the emergency department to cheer her arrival.

  A Great Day for East Alabama

Tuesday’s move was a challenge, but one welcomed by staff and eagerly anticipated by the community who made it possible.

  The new hospital is the product of a partnership between the Randolph County community and Tanner. In August 2015, Randolph County voters turned out for a special referendum on a 1 percent sales tax to fund a replacement facility for Wedowee Hospital. The referendum to build a new hospital in Randolph County received wide support among those voters, with 86 percent of voters supporting the new hospital. Community leaders partnered with Carrollton, Ga.-based Tanner Health System to equip and manage the new hospital.

Tanner is no stranger to east Alabama, currently operating two regional medical practices through its Tanner Medical Group multi-specialty physician group — Tanner Primary Care of Wedowee and Woodland Family Healthcare.

  In May 2016, more than 250 local leaders and Tanner staff gathered for the groundbreaking of the new facility. In late September 2017, several thousand residents took part in open house and ribbon cutting celebrations at the new facility.

  With everything in place, the facility was ready to undergo the licensing process with the state. Inspectors from the Alabama Bureau of Health Provider Standards toured the facility on Oct. 31. The bureau includes the state’s Division of Health Care Facilities, which is responsible for certifying facilities to participation in the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid (CMS) programs. The Division of Health Care Facilities ensures that the level of care delivered by healthcare facilities complies with state and federal standards, ensuring patients receive the highest quality care possible while protecting patients from abuse and neglect.

  Tanner announced Nov. 9 that the license had been issued and the facility was set to open Nov. 14.

  “Once we had our license, we gave ourselves an extra couple of days to review our plan and make sure the move would be as seamless as possible,” said Jerry Morris, administrator of Tanner Medical Center/East Alabama. “We’ve had plenty of time to plan and think things through, and that was reflected in the success of this move.”

  Later in the day, Wedowee Hospital leadership walked through the facility one last time. The hospital will be secured, signage for the emergency department removed and banners placed directing those needing care to the replacement hospital down the road.

“It’s the end of an era,” said Morris, “but it’s also the beginning of a new day for health care in Randolph County. It’s exciting to be a part of it.”

  The new Tanner Medical Center/East Alabama is a more than 50,000-square-foot, three-story modern hospital facility. The hospital will provide 24-hour emergency care, critical care support, inpatient and observation beds, a state-of-the-art surgical suite and advanced diagnostic imaging services, including computed tomography (CT), digital X-ray and ultrasound services. The facility features 15 private inpatient beds, eight emergency department exam rooms, a dedicated ambulance bay for medical emergencies and an on-site laboratory with modern analyzers and instrumentation.

  More information about the new facility is available online at www.tanner.org/eastalabama.

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