Members of the community walk into the new Unicoi County Memorial Hospital for the first time following a ribbon cutting ceremony on Monday, Oct. 22. (Erwin Record Staff Photo by Keeli Parkey)

By Richard Rourk

On Monday, Oct. 22, Unicoi County Memorial Hospital opened its doors for the first public viewing.

“We are ready,” UCMH Administrator Eric Carroll told The Erwin Record on Monday about the opening of the new facility.

The doors to the new hospital officially opened to patients on Tuesday, Oct. 23.

Monday’s ribbon-cutting ceremony, which preceded an open house for the public, drew quite a crowd. On hand to welcome the innovative facility was Carroll, Ballad Health President and CEO Alan Levine, Unicoi County Memorial Hospital physician Dr. Joshua Puhr, Corporate Director of Spirit and Pastoral Care for Ballad Health Gary Metcalf, and U.S. Congressman Dr. Phil Roe.

Carroll recognized past and present hospital board members, as well as government officials in attendance.

Over the last three years, the vision was laid out for the new hospital in a 10-point plan.

“Our 10 guiding principles which are reflective of this hospital are patient and family-centered, safe and efficient, economically feasible, accessible and easy to navigate, able to optimize our resources, flexible and adaptable, supportive of advanced technology, environmentally friendly, attractive to health care professionals and supportive of higher education,” Carroll said.

Carroll then recognized the Ballad Health staff and what they mean to the new hospital.

“This hospital is just a building, the real Unicoi Hospital is made up of our team members and I couldn’t be more proud,” he said.

The new hospital will employ a staff of roughly 115 individuals.

Levine opened his remarks during Monday’s ceremony by recognizing a family that lost everything to a fire recently.

“The first act of this hospital will be to donate $5,000 to that family,” Levine said.

Levine then reinforced Ballad’s commitment to Unicoi County.

“This building today is a monument to the region,” he said.

Ballad Health was faced with a dilemma when they had to decide whether to invest in a rural hospital or not.

“We had to decide if we create a new path forward with a new vision of what a rural hospital would look like or do we simply let other external influences just decide for us what we should do,” Levine explained.

The board at Ballad Health decided to invest in regionalism.

“Our board decided to invest in Unicoi, and that is why we have the hospital we have here today,” Levine said.

When taking the microphone, Roe told a story that shows how far health care has come in this area.

“In 1980 I was the 75th doctor on staff at the Johnson City Medical Center,” Roe said. “There are now over 600 doctors.”

Roe hammered home the investment that Ballad is making in Unicoi County with this new facility.

“Alabama and Tennessee have had the most rural hospital closings in the United States and to be successful you have to have a good education system, which you have here in Unicoi County, and you have to have good healthcare, which you have in this building,” Roe said.

Several local officials were in attendance at Monday’s ceremony.

“This is a very nice addition,” Chairman of the Unicoi County Commission Loren Thomas said. Former Town of Erwin Mayor Russell Brackins reflected on his time on the board and what this hospital means for Unicoi County.

“I’ve been on and off the board for the past 30 years and this is great,” Brackins told The Erwin Record.

Unicoi County Mayor Garland “Bubba” Evely and Town of Erwin Mayor Doris Hensley were also in attendance to see the opening of the hospital.

“When you see all these rural hospitals closing and you see a facility like this, it’s a boom for our community,” Evely said.

“This hospital will bring in more growth throughout the Town of Erwin and Unicoi County and it’s a great day for us,” Hensley told The Erwin Record.

Carroll addressed further what this hospital will mean for Unicoi County.

“You need high-quality health care when you are deciding on a place to live and we can give that to Unicoi County,” Carroll said.

Looking to the future Carroll explained how growth looks going forward.

“We do anticipate growth and volume in both inpatient care, but especially in our outpatient care, with our updated diagnostics,” he said.

Levine explained what Unicoi County means to Ballad Health, saying: “Ballad is a regional health system and Unicoi is a critical part of our region.”

The new UCMH is equipped to offer imaging services including, ultrasound, bone density and 3D mammography. The X-ray machine delivers digital results for both inpatient and outpatient procedures.

“I can tell you that this X-ray machine is second to none,” Roe said.

The Cannon Radiology CT Scan is capable of 160 slices per rotation. Cardiology services, including stress tests, will be available seven days a week. The new nuclear medicine area allows for heart and lung exams. The MRI machine is the first in the state of Tennessee and the first Ballad Health facility to feature virtual theater, which allows the patients to bring in their favorite movies or music to be played while they are in the MRI machine.

Wings, Ballad Health’s air ambulance service made an appearance at Monday’s event, and the crowd was entertained by both the Unicoi County High School Marching Band and the UCHS Bluegrass Band. The public was treated to catering from Hawg-N-Dawg.

The new Unicoi County Memorial Hospital is located at 2030 Temple Hill Road in Erwin and features 24-hour emergency services.