JAMESTOWN, Tenn. (WTVF) — For months, nurses at Jamestown Regional Medical Center knew in the back of their minds that the hospital might close. Yet on multiple occasions they would spend their own money at Walmart to buy supplies for the emergency room or buy meals at McDonald's for patients who were hungry after the hospital had run out of food.
Karen Cooper was so loyal to this hospital that she's worked at since 1982, that she even would've given up a paycheck if had meant Fentress County's only hospital would've stayed open.
But last Thursday morning, with their hands clutched together in prayer and tears streaming down their faces, the 80 remaining employees of Jamestown Regional left the hospital for a final time. Karen Cooper calls it the saddest the moment of her life.
"It was like leaving home," she said sitting on a park bench outside the Fentress County Courthouse on Friday afternoon.
Karen and dozens of her colleagues came here to meet with officials from the Tennessee Department of Labor. Jamestown Regional Hospital was the largest employer in the county and with its doors now locked, employees have been faced with the dismal prospect of trying to find work elsewhere.
Adding to the shock of the hospital closing are revelations that Rennova Health, which owns the facility, failed to send employees income tax witholdings to the IRS. That means many employees are now being audited by the federal government or having difficulty getting state unemployment checks.
"I feel betrayed, almost to the point of being violated. I have never worked for anyone that didn't pay taxes and took it out of my check until now," says Donnette Wilson, a Registered Nurse who's worked at Jamestown Regional since 1994.
As sadness has begun to subside in one of the state's poorest counties, anger has not set in. Most employees here have demanded answers about the hospitals apparent mismanagement from Rennova President Seamus Lagan. Since Lagan's company took over Jamestown Regional last year, the hospital continued to lose money and a few weeks ago lost all Medicaid and Medicare funding due to $4 million in unpaid bills.
Yet those who were laid off still stay they would've done anything possible to keep the facility open.
"I would've went to work without a paycheck," Donnette Wilson added.
Since 2013 more than a dozen rural hospitals have closed across the state of Tennessee. Families living in Fentress County will now have to travel more than 45 minutes to get emergency care. And those who once worked at the hospital say the consequences will likely be deadly.
"If you need a gallon of milk and go to Walmart and they've got a 'closed' sign that's one thing, but if you need CPR and the hospital is closed, you're dead man," Karen Wilson said.
Perhaps most devastating of all to this former nurse though are the broader implications the hospitals closure will have for Fentress County, "What's happening at the hospital has a likelihood of destroying the county, not to mention people's lives."