For the last 24 years Judy Bearden has worked as a medical technologist at Eastern Ozarks Regional Health System.
At a time when the 63-year-old Bearden should be pondering retirement, she will be looking for a new job.
Hospital employees were stunned, if not completely surprised, Dec. 2 when Eastern Ozarks Regional Health System Administrator Terry Cruse announced the layoff of all 142 employees who worked at the Cherokee Village hospital.
"I've never had to close a hospital," a tearful Cruse said after she announced the layoffs at a meeting inside the Eastern Ozarks cafeteria.
"We've had loving people who have devoted their lives to this place," Cruse said as a crowd of somber employees listened.
Eastern Ozarks Hospice and Eastern Ozarks Regional Home Health will remain open.
Renea Mallory, director of Health and Facility Services with the Arkansas Department of Health, said Eastern Ozarks' hospital and Medicare licensures have been suspended.
Mallory said the licensures were suspended so Eastern Ozarks owner Robert Becht could find a buyer for the hospital without permanently shutting down the facility.
Becht will not be allowed to re-open the hospital as its sole owner, Mallory said.
Sharp County Judge Harold Crawford said he has contacted several companies who have shown an interest in buying the hospital.
Those companies contacted include Ameris Health Systems based in Tennessee, Black Hawk Medical based in Austin, Texas, an unnamed Oklahoma health service provider and others who may have representatives looking at the hospital this week, Crawford said.
"We've got to salvage this for the community," Crawford said. "Our people will die by the dozens each year if the emergency room is permanently closed."
Crawford said expectations that the county might purchase the hospital are unreasonable. He said the only way the county could afford to buy and operate the hospital, similar to how Fulton County runs its hospital in Salem, would be to increase the county sales tax.
Cruse said any deal to purchase the hospital will have to be approved by Becht.
According to the Arkansas Department of Health, Eastern Ozarks was shut down for two reasons -- emergency services were not continually available for the month of November and the hospital lab did not have a sufficient number of reagents.
Inspectors with the department of health identified at least 33 possible violations of the Emergency Medical Treatment and Labor Act during a Nov. 29 survey inside Eastern Ozarks Regional Health System.
Each violation carries a fine of up to $50,000.
The violations stem from a funding shortage which was due in part to a problem with the hospital's Medicare claims filing software, Cruse said.
Without Medicare reimbursements, Cruse said, she had to make a choice.
"We either had to pay our vendors who provide products and services to the hospital or we had to pay our employees. I chose to pay our employees," she said.
Cruse said she would not comment about Becht's role in the financial instability of the hospital.
Becht, who owns nursing homes in Florida and Tennessee, also refused to comment.
Cruse said the hospital experienced $660,000 in losses this year and $1.5 million in losses in 2003.
Among the vendors that were not paid were those who supplied the hospital lab with reagents.
Reagents are used to test patients' blood for various maladies.
Lab technicians Lisa Brink and Melissa Pierce said the lack of reagents had been an ongoing problem.
Brink and Pierce said published reports that reagents were stored improperly were untrue.
The Health Department also cited the hospital for not having a director to oversee their lab. The former director, Angie Pickett, quit in June, said Brink.
Another vendor left unpaid was Correct Care, Eastern Ozarks physician referral service.
Correct Care provided Eastern Ozarks with emergency room physicians at night and on weekends when local physicians were not available.
Correct Care terminated their services the last week in October.
Two local physicians, Dr. George Jackson and Dr. Frances Duke, worked night and weekend ER shifts in November in an attempt to keep the hospital open.
Jackson said his father was ill in Tennessee at the end of November and he was unable to cover the ER.
Duke, who broke her contract with Correct Care to help keep the ER open, said Correct Care assigned her to a hospital out of the area over the holiday.
Cruse said she and Director of Nursing Val West made the decision to close the ER after they were unable to find a physician to cover the ER over the Thanksgiving holiday.
"I can't say enough about how grateful we are to Dr. Jackson and Dr. Duke for trying to keep our hospital open," Cruse said.
Hopes that Baxter Regional Medical Center would buy Eastern Ozarks were not realized.
Baxter Regional CEO Steve Erixson said his company entertained the idea of buying Eastern Ozarks but there were several obstacles, including the timing of the sale and commitment to Baxter from the local doctors.
"We declined to make an offer. We weren't sure we could meet what the owner probably wanted or run the facility in a prudent manner," Erixson said.
He said if the facility is closed, then a group of area health care providers may come to an agreement and build a new hospital.
But for employees who just lost their jobs, a new hospital is a distant dream.
Pierce and her husband, Josh, who worked in radiology, now find themselves unemployed. The Pierces have a 2-year-old daughter.
"I guess we'll have to find new jobs. I haven't really thought about it. All of this happened so fast," Josh Pierce said.
Cruse told employees perishable items within the hospital, including X-ray materials, needed to be donated to other hospitals and other medical providers before they spoiled.
Food from the kitchen was to be donated to food banks and shelters.
Bearden said she is sad that "so many people lost their livelihoods" when the hospital closed, but the community as a whole may pay a greater price.
"I've seen several people at death's door that were stabilized and ultimately saved because we had this hospital," Bearden said. "It scares me to think what will happen if the hospital isn't reopened."
What will Bearden do now?
"Looks like I'll be looking for a new job," she said.