Highlands-Cashiers Hospital celebrates 30th anniversary

By Brian O’Shea, Plateau Daily News

Members of the community gathered to recognize the 30th anniversary of the Highlands-Cashiers Hospital on March 15.

HCH CEO Tom Neal spoke about how far healthcare has come on the Plateau since the first hospital was created in downtown Highlands at the Peggy Crosby Center in 1951.

Highlands Cashiers Hospital CEO Tom Neal speaking at the hospital’s 30th anniversary on March 15.

He talked about the courageous efforts of the hospital staff and community who pulled together during the great Blizzard of ’93 and moved the hospital and all its patients to the facility that stands today battling 6-foot snow drifts and failing generators.

Neal said HCH continues to add medical services and attract medical professionals to the area, some of which include the first surgical services conducted last year, cardiological telemedicine, and a CNA training program that provides a pathway for individuals who are passionate about starting their healthcare career.  

“Living in a small community where everyone knows each other makes it personal and challenging because we have to get it right,” said Neal. “Caring and compassion are words we live by every day.”

HCH Chairman of the Board of Trustees Peter Pavarini said for HCH to continue to grow is unique throughout the country.

HCH Chairman of the Board of Trustees Peter Pavarini spoke at the HCH 30th anniversary.

“This hospital is not the norm, but more of an exception,” said Pavarini. “Hospitals of this size are closing down all over. Having a hospital survive, and most importantly thrive, is a testament to the generosity and efforts of a community.”

He also applauded the hospital’s ability to maintain a passionate and energetic staff.

“If we weren’t able to recruit and attract quality help, it would be an empty building,” said Pavarini. “In fact, it’s one of our biggest challenges. But we’re looking ahead and working with local educational institutions encouraging young people to pursue a career in healthcare.”

Highlands Mayor Pat Taylor praised the hospital for its commitment to adding new services and attracting qualified faculty.

Highlands Mayor Pat Taylor at HCH 30th anniversary.

“At the 50th anniversary, I want young people to think why would anyone ever think this hospital would close,” said Taylor. “We have the energy and commitment to move this hospital forward.”

Great Blizzard of ‘93

The move to the current hospital was forced upon hospital staff when the Plateau was hit with a fierce blizzard in March 1993, a storm with hurricane force winds and dropped several feet of snow.

Dr. John Baumrucker was on duty that weekend and told those in attendance of some of the challenges hospital staff faced. The hospital at the Peggy Crosby Center had no power and was running on failing generators. On top of all that, they had a patient who was in labor.

Dr. John Baumrucker describes the weekend of the great blizzard of 1993.

The roads were not passable, and patients and staff were doing the best they could with what they had.

Dr. Baumrucker remembered making a pizza with bread, ketchup, and parmesan cheese; he said everyone was so hungry they said it was the best pizza they ever ate.

He added that he and other staff began siphoning gas from nearby vehicles using a catheter to keep the generators running, but even that bought precious little time.

The morning after the storm began, a Highlands police officer stopped by the hospital to check how people were doing. Dr. Baumrucker instructed the nurses to provide a polite distraction of coffee and conversation while he snuck outside and siphoned the police car’s gas to keep the generator going.

Finally, the decision was made to move to the new facility where there was a working diesel generator. Members of the community who had vehicles that could handle the dangerous roads volunteered to help.

The move was a day ahead of schedule, but it was a necessity. With the community’s help, all patients and necessary equipment were moved to the new facility.

Dr. Baumrucker remembered that in addition to delivering three babies throughout the weekend of the storm, another infant was brought into the hospital after a tree fell on the child’s nursery. Branches crushed everything in the nursery except the center of the room, which is where the baby was sleeping.

“Everything that happened that weekend was a miracle,” said Dr. Baumrucker.

Dr. Patti Wheeler described the early days of Highlands-Cashiers Hospital and the blizzard of ’93.

Other speakers involved in the hospital’s move during the blizzard told their stories, including Dr. Patti Wheeler, HCH Radiology Team Leader Laura Ammons, former EMT Bobby Houston, and Macon County EMS Lora Beegle.

Neal closed the celebration and said there is still more work to be done, and the hospital’s dedicated staff are prepared for the road ahead.

“We are committed to this community and the Plateau,” said Neal. “And we know that to continue to get where we need to go, it’s going to take hard work and sacrifice.”

Pictured at the top of the article from left are Mayor Patrick Taylor, John Baumrucker, MD, Highlands-Cashiers Hospital, Patti Wheeler, MD, Highlands-Cashiers Hospital, Lora Beegle, Macon County EMS, Laura Ammons, Radiology Team Lead Highlands-Cashiers Hospital, Peter Pavarini, Chairman of the Board of Trustees, Highlands-Cashiers Hospital, Tom Neal, CEO Highlands-Cashiers Hospital, and Ralph Campbell, Chaplain, Highlands-Cashiers Hospital. 

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