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Ceremony ends 41 years of medicine for facility

James Wilkinson and France McManus embrace after Wednesday morning’s ceremony which officially ended 41 years of health care at the former Natchez Community Hospital. Both Wilkinson and McManus were at the hospital when it opened and each turned out the lights in their respective departments. (Ben Hillyer / The Natchez Democrat)

James Wilkinson and France McManus embrace after Wednesday morning’s ceremony which officially ended 41 years of health care at the former Natchez Community Hospital. Both Wilkinson and McManus were at the hospital when it opened and each turned out the lights in their respective departments. (Ben Hillyer / The Natchez Democrat)

Standing under a whiteboard with the epigraph “Elvis has left the building” scrawled across it, James Wilkinson flipped down for the last time the light switch in the laboratory where he’s worked for 41 years.

The moment with the light switch — a ceremonial last hurrah at the former Natchez Community Hospital — was greeted with cheers and applause by the few workers and supervisors who remained at the facility for its final day of operation.

The lab was more crowded than it had probably ever been, and atmosphere was more jubilant than bittersweet. Wilkinson, who started as a lab tech when he finished school in 1974, expressed similar feelings.

“I guess you could say I am the old man of the lab,” he said. “I didn’t feel as bad as I thought I would, because all of these people are going with me (to Merit Health Natchez), and we are essentially shutting down an old, rundown hospital and moving to something much better, where we will be able to provide people with better care.”

The 101-bed hospital, most recently known as Merit Health Natchez — Community Campus, opened in late 1973 as Natchez Humana Hospital. It was sold twice during its history, first to Health Management Associates in the early 1990s and then to Community Health Systems (CHS) in 2014.

After CHS purchased the former Natchez Regional Medical Center, it affiliated both hospitals with the Merit Health Network and announced plans to consolidate them on the larger NRMC campus at 54 Seargent S. Prentiss Drive, which has seen significant renovations in the past year.

Wilkinson wasn’t the only employee to work with the hospital from open to close. Frances McManus started work in the hospital’s operating room before the doors even opened to patients.

Wednesday, she was the one who turned off the lights in the operating room.

“I came here in September (1973), when they were still working on it,” she said. “I guess this has been my life.”

Later, the employees who had remained for the last day of operations — the last remaining medical service was the emergency room, which closed at noon — gathered outside for a photo. Movers who were loading up boxes and equipment paused to let the group congregate.

And that was it. The last patients had been transferred to the consolidated campus Tuesday.

The movers resumed packing. In the halls, employees pointed out photos they would like to have. With a comment that an undertaking like a hospital consolidation required input from everyone, Merit Health Natchez Chief Executive Officer Eric Robinson started packing some operating room linens that needed to be sent back to a vendor.

But hospital work is never over, and Chief Nursing Officer Lee Hinson — who has worked at the Community facility since 1999 — said she sees the single hospital as a highlight of the best features of both hospitals.

“I think this is the end of a chapter of health care here in our county, but it is also the beginning of a new chapter of health care, one of the best quality health care the Miss-Lou can have,” Hinson said.

“Our patients can receive the best, compassionate, quality care and not have to leave home. Home is where the heart is, and now the heart will be under one roof.”