ERWIN, Tenn. — Ballad Health in October opened a new community hospital about 20 miles south of its Johnson City headquarters, just off Interstate 26 in the Cherokee National Forest.
The hospital is in Erwin, Tennessee, a town that sent nine men to the U.S. Army Air Corps during World War II. Each was assigned to a different plane that was shot down at a different time. Each was captured, taken to the same German prison camp and survived the war.
Ballad has preserved their story on a legacy wall at the new hospital that was designed to showcase the community. Photographs of Unicoi County’s scenery and landmarks line passageways, and furnishings and fixtures pay homage to Erwin’s environment and railroad past.
A stone-pillared canopy over the entrance and a vaulted lobby ceiling convey the welcoming hospitality of a ski lodge.
On the day the hospital opened, the surrounding mountains framed it in autumn splendor, as political and hospital leaders trumpeted the moment to the accompaniment of the high school band.
The celebratory moment followed years of rumors and doubts that the health system’s owner wouldn’t make good on its word to build a new hospital.
Eric Carroll, the hospital’s administrator, said during the years of planning, people didn’t see ground broken.
“I would go to any meeting they wanted me to explain the decision-making and what we were going to invest in and bring services to the community,” Carroll said.
Unicoi County Hospital opened in 1953 and continued to grow over the next decades.
As the old community-owned hospital model faltered, Unicoi sought a partner and found one in Mountain States Health Alliance. In 2013, Mountain States took over ownership and promised to build a new facility. Mountain States last year became part of Ballad.
The new 100,000-square-foot building is smaller than the old hospital but more aligned with today’s health care model.
“The most important thing was to not design a facility that just works today. Like any business we try to anticipate the trends, so, for me, it was adaptability and planning for the future,” Carroll said.
“You see the shift in health care going drastically toward the outpatient world. The ER is always going to be a part of the facility and be in full use. So we wanted to make sure the ER could take care of any patient whether it’s a cold and sniffle or you have an accident on the interstate that we are immediately adjacent to.”
The old hospital had 48 beds, but on any given day just five of them were in use. The new hospital reduced inpatient rooms to 10 and bumped up emergency room spaces from seven to 10.
The private inpatient rooms are large enough to accommodate a fold-out sofa and reclining chair for visitors. They are equipped with curbless showers and are given a spa touch with an origami towel perched on the bedside table.
The inpatient nurses’ station connects with the one on the emergency room side through a corridor lined with medications and supplies for both, allowing staff and equipment to move quickly among patients.
The hospital does not provide care for children or surgery. But it boasts the latest in ultrasound and mammography, scanning equipment with the largest openings on the market to prevent feelings of claustrophobia, an MRI with video screens and a Netflix subscription to help patients relax, and a 160-slice CT scan.
“We have nuclear medicine that we were never able to offer before,” Carroll said. The goal is to keep as many services as local as possible.
The building also has space for a primary care practice that will open soon, and a boardroom that doubles as community and classroom space.
Carroll started a junior board with middle-schoolers.
“I’ve been trying to find ways to connect with the school system and expose kids early on to what we have here. There is such a stigma that you only come to the hospital when you’re very sick or injured,” he said.
“We need to change that perception because a lot of the goals we have set with Ballad Health is not about that. It’s about community wellness, education and to start having students see that it is a place to come for education about ways to stay healthy so I don’t get sick.
“If we can change that early on, it will be a generational change.”
This story was reported with the support of the Dennis A. Hunt Fund for Health Journalism, a program of the University of Southern California Center for Health Journalism.