Murray Medical CELEBRATES 75 Years | JANUARY 2019
After an Atlanta hospital refused to treat his terminal cancer, J. Frank Hall came home to Chatsworth and died—but not before he had bequeathed 140 acres-worth of trees on his family farm to build a hospital in Murray County.
Seventy years later the hospital remains open, albeit now in a different building in a different part of town. It is a testament to that gift and the tireless efforts since of a community bent on ensuring J. Frank Hall’s experience never happened to anyone else.
In addition to timber, Hall left $80,000–this from a man the Atlanta hospital had deemed too poor to pay for treatment—in additional funding for the project. Local hotelier V.C. Pickering, who had died of heart disease in 1946, kickstarted the effort with his $100,000 bequest. W.A. Tatum gave the land. Local residents donated contracting services for the project, saving approximately $75,000 in construction costs.
In 1948, the hospital, outfitted with patient beds, an operating room, a maternity war, a dental clinic, a lab, an x-ray center, a public health clinic and a cancer clinic, opened its doors on Walnut Street in downtown Chatsworth—the “old hospital” site, as long-time residents still call it where the local police headquarters now stands. The “new” hospital, opened in 1976 on the outskirts of town at 707 Old Dalton Ellijay Road.
At his request, nested in new building’s masonry, were two bricks Hall’s grandfather had handmade in the 1800s, pocked by the footprints of his sow and her piglets.
“The hospital is so integral to the community,” says Tom Ramsey, local state representative, now retired, and longtime chair of the Murray County Hospital Authority.
And for the past 70 years, the community has done what it takes to keep the hospital open. In more recent years that’s included bringing in partners and management companies to operate Murray Medical Center as changes in the healthcare industry made operating the hospital more complicated and more costly. At one point it meant the hospital authority retaking management control when its partner left town. Through the years it’s meant fundraisers and lots of wrangling and tough decisions by the hospital’s board.
In 2015 the hospital joined forces with Adventist Health Systems, which owns Gordon Hospital in nearby Calhoun, to help right the ship and carry on Hall’s legacy.
For Murray County, keeping a hospital has been crucial, not only to providing needed healthcare but to retaining local employers and boosting the local economy.
“Business and industry wouldn’t want to come here if there wasn’t a hospital,” says Annette Peden, who was born at Murray Medical Center and has worked there for more than 40 years. “It would be frightening to live in a community that didn’t have a hospital or healthcare.”
“You lose part of your identity if your hospital closes,” says Ramsey.
For a man the local paper declared, “‘not overly fond of people,” and an evident spendthrift, Murray Medical Center is not a shabby legacy.
Cementing that legacy was been a key focus of Adventist Health Systems as it took over management of the hospital in 2015 and has worked to bolster the physician base, expand hospital services that had languished in recent years and re-establish Murray’s reputation for quality local healthcare.
The partnership was a good fit for the system, which operates 46 hospitals nationwide, says Karen Steely, administrator of Murray Medical Center. In 2015 it forged a five-year management agreement to operate the hospital, while the county has retained ownership. Bringing both Gordon and Murray hospitals under unified management helps both facilities in terms of being able to reduce the cost of supplies and services and recruit physicians, she says.
“When it comes to recruiting quality physicians it’s impactful to have a larger network,” she says. “From a network perspective, it’s helped our mission.”
Steely is one of many who work for Murray hospital with local connections. She lived in Murray County when she was a young girl, and her father’s family is from the area. She had occasion to visit the hospital after getting her arm stuck in the chair at a local pizzeria.
“It’s just pretty cool how God works in your life,” she says. “I often run into people I know around town, people I went to school with.”
The medical center serves a uniquely Appalachian corner of Georgia. With its backdrop of mountains, Murray County—population just shy of 40,000—includes Fort Mountain State Park along with the towns of Chatsworth, Crandall, Eton, Pine Log and Spring Place. The county borders Ellijay and Blue Ridge in Gilmore County—population 30,000-which it also serves.
Naomi Fehrle, a nurse practitioner at Sutter Family Practice in Chatsworth, cut her teeth as director of nurses at Murray Medical Center in the 1970s when just a year out of nursing school the then-director left and asked her to do the job.
“I learned a lot by struggling,” she says.
Back then, it was still the “old hospital,” with three beds in the ER divided by curtains, ambulance service provided by the local undertakers and no radio communications among first responders.
“That was normal for rural hospitals,” Fehrle says. “You never knew what was coming in the back door when you got there.”
Particularly memorable was each year’s Wagon Train, in which the town essentially closed the week of July 4, and townspeople had a party.
“There were horse shows and barrel races,” she remembers. “All the carpet mills closed down for the week. People were feeling their oats and got a little carried away, so the emergency room saw the brunt of this … people falling off horses, getting in fights.”
Later, after leaving to start training as a nurse practioner, Fehrle served on the Murray County Hospital Authority board during the difficult days the hospital struggled to stay afloat.
“It’s been stressful—stressful for the hospital authority, stressful for the staff at the hospital,” she says. “We’ve had a lot of ups and downs.”
Today, Fehrle feels hope.
“I would say this has probably been the best situation that we’ve had of all the management groups we’ve brought on,” she says. “And the community has really bought in.”
Securing the future
Continued community support is critical to the hospital’s success, Steely says, and Gordon Hospital is committed to continue supporting and nurturing those relationships.
“We are working with the county to establish that long-term future relationship,” she says. “We are developing a 10-year master plan. We are assessing what the community needs and what we need to do. We’re excited about the future.”
The benefit of a smaller community hospital has always been the local, hometown service, says Ramsey—something the hospital authority identified as a priority in its management days.
“The hospital always had a great level of customer service,” he says. “Most individuals when they go to the hospital, if it looks, clean, if people treat you well, if your bill is correct, if the food was good, they are going to feel good about being there. We have always gotten very very good ratings on that.”
Ramsey believes Murray Medical Center’s new management team will build on that tradition—delivering stellar healthcare along with it.
“They have brought new and updated equipment. They have gotten new physicians to come to town. They’ve gotten specialites we’ve never even dreamed of. We thought we’d died and gone to heaven when we got an internal medicine doctor,” he says. “I think this partnership is the best thing that’s happened to our hospital.”
From the Desk of the Administrator | JANUARY 2019
In healthcare, we always walk the tightrope of making good business decisions while still meeting the needs of the communities we serve. Continual shifts in the regulatory and reimbursement landscape and growing challenges in patient needs have made this negotiation increasingly precarious, as evidenced by so many now-defunct rural hospitals littering the landscape.
That’s what makes the partnership between Adventist Health Systems and Murray Medical Center so gratifying. Now three years into our management agreement, we have been able to expand in a way that supports Gordon Hospital’s existing presence in north Georgia and provides top-notch healthcare services to our neighbors in rural Murray and Gilmore counties.
Murray Medical Center is already a survivor. Thanks to longtime, dedicated community support—not to mention the blood, sweat and tears of its employees—the hospital has overcome what many small, country hospitals could not. After its founding 70 years ago on Walnut Street in downtown Chatsworth, Murray Hospital’s doors remain open. We celebrate that milestone in the pages of this issue.
We also look to the future.
We are thrilled, as part of our five-year agreement with the Murray County Hospital Authority, to play a part not only in keeping the doors open but in helping give the community the kind of comprehensive healthcare residents were traveling hours to reach—or forgoing altogether. We want to keep Murray Hospital a sound, locally-rooted, community-oriented hospital. And it is wonderful to see how the community has embraced our efforts to do so.
I believe our purpose at Adventist Health Systems to provide Christ-centered healthcare meshes uniquely with Murray Medical Center’s mission to provide locally-sourced medical care. We have joined these missions together to serve a genuine need.
Being part of a rural healthcare mission also lets us touch lives in a more personal way. Our patients are our neighbors and friends, people we go to church with, shop with, serve with in community organizations. Many of our doctors, administrators and employees have grown up in Northwest Georgia, and they feel a special calling to care for the people they know and love. They are invested.
Adventist Health Systems is invested too. We are expanding physician care throughout Murray and Gilmore Counties, and as this issue goes to press we consider how to further build on this work to secure Murray Medical Center’s future and create a lasting partnership for years to come.
It is a privilege to lead and participate in this process. I can honestly say, in my 40 years of working in healthcare, I have never been more excited than I am now.