April 4, 2012

Murray County has rallied behind hospital many times

Charles Oliver

— Frank Hall had throat cancer and his health was fading fast. But when a friend took the Murray County farmer to a hospital in Atlanta for treatment, he was turned away.

A story in the Atlanta Journal says hospital officials thought Hall was just “a penniless mountaineer.”

But Hall had a farm of 470 acres north of Chatsworth, and just days before he died in 1948, Hall wrote his will. He left money to a local church and to the Masonic Lodge, where he was a member. And he directed that the timber on his farm should be harvested and the proceeds used to help fund a hospital in Murray County, so none of his neighbors would have to go through what he did.

The Atlanta Journal reported that the sale netted about $80,000. According to the Federal Reserve’s inflation calculator, that comes to about $744,000 in today’s dollars.

At the time Hall made his bequest, the local Lions Club had been pushing hard for a hospital, said Murray County Historian Tim Howard.

Chatsworth businessman V.C. Pickering had already left $100,000 to build a hospital when he died in 1946. A third Murray County resident, W.A. Tatum, gave land for the hospital at Walnut Street and Fourth Avenue.

Local residents pitched in with labor, and when the hospital opened in 1950, it had, according to the Atlanta Journal, “a complete operating room, maternity department, dental clinic, laboratory, X-ray, health center, Negro ward and cancer clinic.” (Journal articles on the opening of the hospital can be found at www.murraycountymuseum.com.)

“It also had the health department in the basement, but it was never a huge facility, maybe 20 or 25 beds when it opened,” said Howard.

Despite its small size, at the time of its opening the hospital was considered one of the top rural hospitals in the Southeast. And it had a couple of features no other hospital possessed. Frank Hall had saved two bricks made by his grandfather in 1840. While the bricks were drying, some pigs walked across them, leaving hoof marks. P.H. Bond, the executor of Hall’s estate, insisted the bricks be used in the hospital.

The hospital was expanded over the years. But it was always small.

“There wasn’t much room for expansion, and parking was never plentiful at the old hospital. There were several doctors offices across Walnut Street from the hospital. That was convenient for them, but in the daytime especially parking was at a premium there,” Howard said. “The emergency room was very small, and the waiting room was very tiny, a crackerbox.”

By the early 1970s, many in Murray County believed the community needed a newer, larger hospital. But when they approached state officials about helping to fund it they didn’t get far.

“The state wanted us to basically make the hospital a first aid station and use Hamilton (in Dalton) as our main hospital. So we decided to put it on the ballot, and the vote came back that everyone wanted a full-blown hospital, not a first aid station,” said Sherman Leonard, who served on the hospital authority board in the 1970s.

The hospital authority issued bonds and got a grant from the federal Appalachian Regional Commission. Ground was broken for the new hospital, on the Old Dalton-Ellijay Road, in 1972.

“It wasn’t long after the vote that we broke ground. We had to meet all the regulations and rules, but there wasn’t nearly as much red tape then to slow us down,” said Leonard. “We hired an architect. He got the plans approved by the state, and we let the contract and started building. That’s how we used to do things. We don’t do it that way anymore.”

The new hospital opened just three years later with 42 beds.

“Mr. Tatum’s (wife) became the first patient when the new hospital opened in 1975,” Howard said.

Nurse Nell Fisher recalls the staff and doctors were excited to move into the new building but sad to leave the old one behind.

“There was a lot of history there, of course. And the old hospital was right in the city, and we thought we were moving out into the country,” she said. “But that wasn’t what it was like at all.”

Fisher, who worked at the old hospital for two years and at the new one for 25, says there was “all the difference in the world” between the two buildings.

“The emergency room was really updated. And the operating room was, too. We had four halls,” she said.

Administrative Assistant Annette Peden started at the hospital in September 1976 through a vocational training program at Murray County High School.

“I remember the walls were industrial green and industrial blue, which was typical for pretty much any government building you went into at that time,” she said.

There were several expansions and additions over the years, including the addition of a wing for MRIs. But the largest expansion so far came in 2006, when officials decided to expand the emergency room, which was seeing 18,000 patients a year.

“The emergency room went from four rooms and six beds to 16 individual rooms and two rooms for psychiatric evaluations,” Peden said.

Along with the emergency room project, the radiology, laboratory, respiratory care, pharmacy and registration areas were expanded.

Murray Medical Center became an independent hospital this year after agreeing to split from Hamilton Health Care System, which had managed the hospital since 1998. (It had been managed by other firms before Hamilton).

“It’s almost a fresh start. Everyone here takes their job seriously. They take a lot of pride in this hospital, and I think everyone is looking forward to the future,” Peden said.