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'A lot of broken-hearted and very angry people:' Longtime nurse reflects on Cottage closure

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Jamie Lane was a nurse at Cottage Hospital for 43 years. She is pictured here in the hospital's ICU in 1978.

Jamie Lane started at Cottage Hospital in 1976, straight out of nursing school.

She spent two years in pediatrics, and then 41 years working in the hospital’s ICU.

Cottage, which opened in Galesburg in 1893, had a nursing school for decades.

Lane did not get her degree from there, but many of her colleagues in the early days did – and then they were lifers on the hospital floor.

“There were so many nurses that had been there 30, 40, 50 years,” Lane said. “It was a life commitment.”

On Jan. 8, Cottage Hospital suspended operations, posting signs on its doors that it was temporarily closed.

This came days before the hospital was set to lose Medicare and Medicaid funding due to numerous violations, and followed a period of turmoil at the hospital marked by new ownership in 2020 and steep staffing cuts.

“There’s a lot of broken-hearted and very angry people about this, a lot of retired nurses that were Cottage born and bred and spent their whole life there that are just crushed by this and just very angry about the mismanagement,” Lane said.

Changes in administration
In the first part of Lane’s career, administration was very stable, she said.

CEOs would stay 10 or 15 years, so would directors of nursing, and Lane felt like she could go in and talk to them at any time.

That started to change when the hospital was sold in 2004 to Community Health Systems of Brentwood, Tenn., and became a for-profit hospital for the first time.

Lane said it became a lot more impersonal.

There was constant turnover.

Administrators would come in for a couple of years and then leave.

Some wouldn’t even bother moving their families to Galesburg, she said.

“I didn’t feel like they were invested in our hospital or our town,” Lane said.

Declining census

Lane recalls when the census at Cottage would reach 240 patients in the wintertime.

That was in the 1970s when the hospital had a large staff of well-respected surgeons.

“People came from miles around,” she said.

Halfway through Lane’s career, the census was more like 100 patients.

By the time she retired in 2019, there might be 10 or 15 patients admitted to the hospital’s medical/surgical floor at a time.

In the weeks before Cottage suspended operations, the census had dropped even further – to four or five medical/surgical patients.

That’s according to reports from public health investigators who surveyed Cottage multiple times in late 2021.

Those surveys determined the hospital was not compliant on Medicare conditions regarding governing body, physical environment, patient rights and nursing services, leading to the pending termination of the hospital’s participation in the Medicare program.

Losing doctors

Lane believes Cottage would have been better off if it was sold to a regional hospital in 2004.

That would have allowed for sharing of doctors and resources, and for more supervision, she said.

“If you have a strong tie to a local, bigger hospital you’re a lot more apt to stay in business than getting bought by some conglomeration that has no vested interest in you,” Lane said. “You’re just numbers and profit to them.”

From Lane’s perspective, the other major contributor to Cottage’s decline was the loss of admitting doctors over the years.

She said some surgeons and specialists retired and weren’t replaced.

Others went to work for the community’s other healthcare provider, OSF St. Mary Medical Center, or to larger markets.

“We lost a lot of our specialists over the years, which meant less surgeons, less surgeries, just a decrease in the census of the hospital,” Lane said.

In addition, the population in Galesburg and the surrounding areas has steadily declined since the 1980s, and patients now have more outpatient procedures and shorter hospital stays.

A death knell

Lane was nearing her 40th year at the hospital when Community Health Systems spun off some of its properties, including Cottage, into Quorum Health Corporation, in 2015.

She didn’t notice much of a change.

“They still had a cash flow and continued to maintain and improve things,” Lane said.

But she said in the coming years Cottage would lose a couple of specialists that were admitting the majority of the hospital’s patients at the time.

Lane retired in 2019, following the death of her husband.

That was a year before Quorum filed for bankruptcy, claiming Cottage Hospital and its clinics lost more than $20 million in operating expenses during 2018 and 2019.

It was also a year before Quorum sold Cottage to SBJ Group of Austin, Texas, and that period of turmoil began.

Lane said she was not surprised to learn the hospital had closed its doors after witnessing its census – and Galesburg’s population – decline over the years.

She knew that the ICU where she spent 41 years had been closed for months and that staff numbers were spiraling.

But the death knell, she said, was losing Medicare participation.

“It’s hard to think of the building empty,” Lane said.

Tri States Public Radio produced this story.  TSPR relies on financial support from our readers and listeners in order to provide coverage of the issues that matter to west central Illinois, southeast Iowa, and northeast Missouri. As someone who values the content created by TSPR's news department please consider making a financial contribution.

Jane Carlson covers west central Illinois and southeast Iowa for Tri States Public Radio.