What’s in a name?

Rachael Scarborough King
Star Staff Writer
Published: August 21, 2006

What did you call the neighborhood where you grew up?

If it was something like Ten Island, Duke, Chosea Springs or Iron City, chances are you hear that name less and less these days.

As some smaller communities have been annexed into cities or swallowed by sprawl, the individual, often quirky names they were known by may be disappearing. At the same time, schools built in the last few decades have led to widespread use of a school’s name as a designation for the surrounding area.

Rachel Cheatwood, a lifelong resident of Rabbittown, said her neighbors still use the name exclusively to refer to the area, about six miles east of Jacksonville.

“It’s always Rabbittown with us ’cause we’ve always lived here,” Cheatwood said. “I always say I’m from Rabbittown, and then I might say, ‘three miles from White Plains’ or maybe ‘about 20 miles northeast of Anniston’ or something like that.”

Rudy Abbott, commissioner for northeastern Calhoun County, said there is a plethora of these smaller communities, many of them dating from the mid- to late 1800s.

“All of these areas will be named after either a church, the prominent family in this community, it may be a school … and there’s all kinds of communities named after something like a spring or a lake a recreation site,” Abbott said.

While many of these names still are familiar to people living in and around these areas, they are gradually losing currency elsewhere. Abbott recalled a similar situation with a community close to where he grew up in west Anniston, Eulaton.

“If we told people we were from Eulaton when we were in Birmingham nobody knew where that was, so we told them we were from west Anniston,” he said.

Many places, such as Duke and Cedar Springs, had their own junior high schools, which were closed or consolidated with other schools. Anthony Findley, a teacher at Pleasant Valley High School, said he thought that the schools often cemented the communities.

“People in Williams and all these other communities, since the schools were there they took pride in their community,” Findley said.

The principal of Pleasant Valley High School, Charlton Giles, said that four schools – Cedar Springs, Webster’s Chapel, Roy Webb and Williams – were consolidated to make Pleasant Valley, a name that now is well known throughout the county because of the school.

“It really makes sense, because there’s not a township or city type of government out here and in this community everything centers around church and school,” Giles said.

But Findley added that the area did not derive its name from the school. He said a church with the Pleasant Valley name has been in existence for about 90 years.

“When they formed the church, they had an argument about what to call the church, one of them liked Pleasant Grove, one of them Happy Valley, so they compromised on Pleasant Valley,” he said. “That’s how the name Pleasant Valley came about up here.”

Another area whose name is strongly identified with a school is Saks, which has an elementary, middle and high school. Larry Skinner, principal of Saks High, said that determining the origin of the name is “about like saying, which came first, the chicken or the egg.”

“Joseph Saks, he was a kind of landowner,” Skinner said. “He built a school to educate the children of the people who worked for him and then I’m sure others attended and then it took off, the community began to grow and the school grew, too.”

Skinner said Saks moved to Anniston from Birmingham in the late 1800s and that the first school building was put up in the 1920s or ’30s. The current building was erected in 1969 and added to in 1973, he said.

In Rabbittown, many residents know the legend of the name’s origin. According to library records, an American Indian who owned the area disliked the original name of Egypt bestowed by settlers, and changed it to The Rabbit. Through the generations, this name gradually morphed to Rabbittown.

Ronald Hall, another lifelong resident of the area, said he thinks the name is still as much in use as ever.

“It’s just an old community and it’s kind of hard for another place like White Plains to take over a community that’s been here as long as Rabbittown has,” he said.

Many of these areas still have street signs marking them and a church bearing the name, but few are noted on maps. Abbott, the county commissioner, said that with more people moving out of cities and into unincorporated areas of the county, the old names may become obscured.

“I think probably some of the community identification maybe is not as strong as it once was, because new people and newcomers and the younger generation, you know, do not pick up on those things and they may want to know what road you live on, what street you live on, not what community you reside in,” he said.

The schools or other landmarks such as a post office play a big role in a community’s name becoming more or less known, Abbott said.

“I think that happens in every community, they’ll have a tendency to identify with a school or a big church or if there’s only one church or whatever,” he said. “As those schools became outdated and needed to be replaced and consolidation took place then the thing that really identified that community to a great extent lost part of that.”

But Cheatwood, the Rabbittown resident, disagreed, saying she thinks that the new people moving to her community are adopting and identifying with the name. She added that she thinks it is important for areas to hold on to their names because it gives them “character.”

“I think it’s probably becoming more known because so many people are moving in,” she said.

Abbott said new growth in suburban areas could lead to new names arising.

“The only time I see it changing is when they bring in schools,” he said. But he wondered if other institutions could give rise to place names, say a major local employer, for instance.

“You know, it would be interesting to see if the Eastaboga area, which has a post office,” Abbott said, “becomes ‘the Honda community.'”

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No need for speed

Rachael Scarborough King
Star Staff Writer
Published: August 18, 2006

OHATCHEE – It’s a familiar sight for school administrators: Teenage drivers hopping in their cars at the end of the school day and tearing out of the parking lot, blithely speeding past school zone signs in their haste to leave.

Ohatchee High School officials hope to slow student drivers down by revoking parking permits for those who receive tickets in the school zone. It’s enlisted the help of the Ohatchee Police Department in reporting students stopped for traffic violations.

Principal Robin Kines said this policy has been in place for a few years. Over the summer, she met with police Chief Wayne Chandler several times to discuss traffic.

“It was new to the chief because … he wasn’t aware of what we were doing here at the school when he made us aware of situations that might have happened,” Kines said. “He is just going to make his officers much more aware of the fact that they should contact us if they stop anyone or give citations.”

Assistant Principal Natasha Scott said that last year she took away about 10 parking passes after seeing students speeding and passing buses around the school.

Students at Ohatchee pay $20 per year for their parking permits, and administrators aren’t afraid to revoke them for traffic violations.

“It’s a privilege to drive to school, and we would just look at revoking that privilege for a period of time,” Kines said. “I wouldn’t go as far as to say it’s been a problem, but there have been some situations where a car may pass a bus or something of that nature, which is a serious safety concern.”

Chandler agreed that tickets have not been very common in the school zone.

“So far the traffic has been pretty heavy and there’s not been a lot of space available where they could get up a good bit of speed,” he said. “If it becomes something (where) we need to give tickets we will, and that applies to parents, teachers and students or anybody else that might be in that area.”

Kines said that students have been made aware of the policy. The president of the Student Government Association, Jenna Bowden, said the concept was stressed by teachers in home room and that many students are talking about it.

“Some people say it’s pretty crazy, I guess because, you know, they’re used to their rights and outside of school doesn’t have anything to do with school.” But Bowden said she agrees with the policy: “It’s helping safety all the time.”

Bowden said students often drive recklessly after school, “squealing tires, showing out, not paying attention to what’s going on around them.”

She added that she thinks it’s fair for the school to punish students even for violations that occur outside of school hours and off school property.

“School’s a big part of our life and I think they should have the right to discipline us for things we do outside of school, especially if it’s threatening to life,” she said.

Since school started last week, there have been more officers patrolling in the area and more speed limit signs have recently been added, Chandler said. The school zone has a limit of 15 mph during the morning and afternoon.

Bowden said she thinks losing parking privileges would be more important for many students than having to pay a fine.

“Most parents would make them ride the bus,” she said. “I think getting our parking deeds taken away would make for more of an impact than just the ticket alone.”

The loss of a parking permit may or may not be a strong deterrent, Principal Kines said, but the main goal is increasing safety and decreasing speed around both the elementary and high schools.

“Both of those things are quite important to teenagers,” she said, “money and driving.”

Anniston City Schools Foundation will hold high-tea fund-raiser

Rachael Scarborough King
Star Staff Writer
Published: August 16, 2006

For anyone who has ever dreamed of returning to the era of high tea and white gloves, the Anniston City Schools Foundation may provide the chance at its fund-raiser Saturday.

The foundation will hold a benefit at the Classic on Noble restaurant featuring tea, a table-setting contest and a fashion show.

Catherine Chappell, director of the Anniston City Schools Foundation, said the goal is to raise $5,000. Each plate costs $50, or attendees can sponsor a table of eight for $350.

“I just thought it would be something different for us to do as a fund-raiser, something that people would want to support,” Chappell said. “It’s a different twist, more like an elegant type of setting where we are asking the ladies to dress in their hats and gloves, just like they did at the original high tea.”

Chappell said she is expecting mostly women, but that men are welcome, too. About 51 tickets have been sold so far, and they can also be purchased by contacting the Anniston City Schools Foundation or at the door.

The participants will compete at setting a traditional high-tea service. Chappell said there will be prizes for first, second and third place.

“I don’t want to reveal the prizes yet, but I’m sure they will be very pleased with them,” she said.

The Anniston City Schools Foundation is a nonprofit organization that provides supplemental education programs, such as tutoring and scholarships, for students in the Anniston school system. Chappell said this is the foundation’s first big fund-raiser in several years and that she hopes to make it an annual event.

The fashion show element of the event will feature clothes from Wakefield’s department store shown by six models.

“They will be some of the latest trends that will be available at Wakefield’s this fall,” Chappell said.

A ghost town

Rachael Scarborough King
Star Staff Writer
Published: August 15, 2006

OHATCHEE – In the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s, Ohatchee’s downtown square was a bustling place, with a café and soda fountain, two grocery stores, a drug store, a doctor’s office, the town hall – and a movie theater known for playing films deemed too explicit for Anniston’s theaters.

Ohatchee didn’t have censors, meaning that the theater could play pictures like “The Outlaw,” which was famous (or infamous) for its generous portrayal of Jane Russell’s décolletage.

Marie Guthrie, a longtime Ohatchee resident, remembers the crowds of people trying to see the film.

“Of course, some of the people got to see it and some didn’t,” Guthrie said, laughing. “Some got in that shouldn’t have.”

The square near the corner of Spring Road and Main Street used to be the center of life in Ohatchee, before good highways put Anniston and Gadsden a short drive away.

Now, “it’s like a ghost town up here,” said Susie McCrelles Watts, who owns Susie’s Country Store, one of the few businesses left on the square.

“It’s just nobody,” she added.

The downtown area, with its clapboard storefronts and grassy square bordering the train tracks, dates to the 1930s, Mayor Joseph Roberson said.

“I was always told what a booming town it was once upon a time,” Roberson said. “It was just a hustling, bustling place.”

The decline started in the 1960s, he said, when Alabama 144 was built, winding east to U.S. 431 and Anniston, and west to Alabama 77 and Gadsden.

“Unfortunately the economics of the (area) changed and the highway came through and bypassed the old downtown,” he said.

The activity now has shifted to the area at the intersection of Alabama 144 and 77, which features a Jack’s restaurant, gas station and shopping plaza. The town hall relocated to a new municipal complex there in 2002.

“We were fortunate enough and maybe smart enough to move out on the highway … and revitalize the town,” Roberson, who has been mayor since 1984, said. “My vision was to build a town nucleus again in a different location, bring it down here where the traffic was (and) the people are.”

Many of Ohatchee’s older residents look back on the old downtown with a sense of nostalgia.

“The town square used to be the center of the town,” said Virgie Hunst, who moved with her parents to a house on the square in 1946. “It was really lively.”

“On Saturday afternoons you couldn’t find a parking place in Ohatchee,” added Donald Nunnally. “A lot of young ones (now) don’t know that that was the town at one time.”

Curt Dover said the hang-out in those days was Doc’s Café, right next to the movie theater.

“You could flip a nickel up there (on the counter) and let it bounce a time or two and he’d come out the back door and say, ‘I’ll be there in a minute,'” Dover said. “Doc, he ran that café for years and years but I guess it got where it wasn’t profitable.”

Most of the storefronts are now boarded up. Susie’s, a salvage grocery store, is open two whole days and two half days a week, the owner said.

Last year, some local residents approached the City Council with concerns about the decay. At a council meeting Lamar and Cathy Crosson said the area was filled with stray animals and trash and that they suspected a nearby house of harboring drug dealers.

Roberson said that over the years he has fielded requests for the city to redevelop the town square. Possible uses have included turning the buildings into an arts and crafts center.

“We agree with that (and) we think it would be nice, too … but it takes some community involvement and support and effort too,” he said.

“It’s hard for the town to do all these things, it takes a lot of time to arrange all that. We’d love to see things like that go on but we’d like to see some more community involvement.”

McCrelles, the owner of Susie’s, said she doesn’t know what could be done to revitalize the square but that she would be interested in playing a part.

“There’s a lot of people that does not know that Ohatchee has a square … and that’s the sad part about it because it’s cute, it’s just something different,” she said. “I just wish it was like it was, it needs to be popping out here. It needs something going on.”

Many longtime residents agreed with Roberson that the town’s shift away from the old downtown has caused some changes in the community.

“Everybody knew each other. We have a lot of transient traffic now stopping at our service stations and restaurants,” Roberson said. “It’s not probably as close-knit as it was back then when there was less automobiles and kids didn’t have as much to do.”

“I guess it was (more close-knit) ’cause it’s kind of scattered out now, everybody knew everybody then,” Hunst said. “I think it’s good to spread out, to be optimistic about it, ’cause it’s got room to grow over here.”

For many older Ohatchee residents, the new senior center behind town hall in some ways approximates the old downtown as a daily gathering place for the community.

“There ain’t no downtown area now, I haven’t been up there in years,” Joe Carter said. “This (senior center) right here is the best thing we’ve had in Ohatchee since I can remember.”

‘Still sitting in the same spot’

Rachael Scarborough King

Star Staff Writer
Published: August 13, 2006

Six hundred million dollars sounds like a lot of money, and it is – in 2003, it seemed like the answer to the people of West Anniston’s prayers when lawsuits over PCBs contamination were settled for that amount.

But divide $600 million by 21,600 plaintiffs, and the astronomical figure starts to come down to Earth. Take away 40 percent for lawyers, and the money quickly dwindles.

The Tolbert v. Monsanto and Abernathy v. Monsanto lawsuits, which charged the chemical company with dumping harmful PCBs into west Anniston for decades, were settled in August 2003 for $300 million each. Most of those involved in the class-action lawsuits received their final personal-injury payments six months to a year ago.

But after the lawyers’ fees, hospital bills and overdue debts were paid, many claimants say they are back where they started – ailing, their bodies and homes still contaminated with the chemical pollutant polychlorinated biphenyl, and with no money left to solve the problems.

Although the Tolbert case had 18,000 plaintiffs and the Abernathy case had just 3,600, they were settled jointly for $600 million, $300 million going to each group.

Thomas Long, a Methodist minister who lives in west Anniston and was part of the Tolbert case, said the amount of settlement money should have been enough to permanently change the community for the better.

“It’s just like the system got the butter and the eggs and the sugar and the flavor out the cake (and) the flour was left for the people,” Long said. “We’re still in the same predicament, the case is over with, the settlement has taken place, the money is gone and we still are sitting in the same spot.”

Dividing the Money

Ed Gentle, the settlement fund administrator for the Tolbert case, said each plaintiff’s payment was based on three factors: the level of PCBs in a person’s blood, a medical interview with a registered nurse, and the number of years a person lived in the affected area.

The Abernathy case does not have a settlement fund administrator; the payments were handled by lead attorney Donald Stewart. Several calls for comment to Stewart’s office were not returned.

Gentle, a lawyer in Birmingham, said the average payment in the Tolbert case was about $7,000 to $8,000. Some of those with serious medical issues received more than $100,000.

“We wanted to pay claimants as quickly as we could, but we had to budget the money to make sure we had enough for everybody,” Gentle said. “So in a sense it was sort of a savings account from which they got paid three times.”

Gentle said every adult claimant has received the total amount of his or her payment; minor claimants will get their money when they turn 19, unless they have a medical emergency before then.

One major difference between the two cases is that Tolbert set aside money to fund a health clinic for 10 years. The Tolbert Health Clinic, which has two locations, on Noble Street and 10th Street, provides medical and dental care and prescription drugs for claimants. The health care originally was supposed to be free, but prescriptions costing more than $25 now have a co-payment.

“The way I saw it, it was their money and it was their decision (on how to spend it),” Gentle said. “On the other hand, you can think of the clinic as a long-term endowment that provides some safety net for the claimants … and that gives them a longer-term benefit than just the check.”

Curtis Ray, chairman of the claimants’ advisory committee and a claimant in the Tolbert case, agreed that the clinic was a major benefit for the people affected.

“The best thing that’s come from Tolbert right now is the clinic,” Ray said. “We’re working hard to keep it alive … trying to stretch the money, you know it’s much needed.”

Ray also praised Gentle for his handling of the funds. The clinic, however, is not available to those in the Abernathy case.

“I cannot utilize the clinic that I helped fight for,” said David Baker, executive director of the West Anniston activist group Community Against Pollution.

Where the Money Went

Jewell Parker received $159,000 in the Abernathy settlement. First $17,000 was deducted for Medicare, and then she moved a few blocks to Dooley Avenue because her old house was eaten away by termites.

After giving some money to her children and grandchildren, she said, her settlement check is spent. And she still has very elevated levels of PCBs and lead in her blood. It is difficult for doctors to remove PCBs from the body.

“I wasn’t off on any big cars or any of that,” Parker said. “Some of them did, some of them didn’t (spend the money wisely) … I don’t know, I was just happy with what I got.”

But many others did not think they received as much money as they deserved. Ray, the claimants’ advisory committee chairman, said he thought almost everyone should have seen larger checks.

“What I didn’t like about it is that other folks took a lot of the people’s money, such as Social Security,” Ray said. “I think everybody in the lawsuit should have got at least $250,000 a piece.”

He added that the people who died from what may have been PCBs-related illnesses before the lawsuits started received nothing. Because the cases – which were named after two of the plaintiffs and divided into a federal case and state case – never went to trial, the court never determined whether PCBs were the cause of the plaintiffs’ health problems.

Long, the minister, said that most of the people who were sick and dying were not able to make a dent in their medical bills with their settlement checks.

“The majority of the people that suffered the most from this thing did not receive enough money from the settlement to make the necessary changes in their lives to better their lives,” he said.

Both Ray and Long said the money was enough to temporarily help some people out, but not to change their lives in the long term. Long, who received $78,000, said much of his money has been spent on “a sack full of” medication. Ray did not want to disclose his settlement, but said it was “a very small amount.”

“The money was already gone (by the time you got the check), the little bit that we did get, it was gone for medical expenses that we had been suffering with,” Long said. “When we got it we had high hospital bills, high doctor bills, we had to pay that up and then the rest of it you had to buy medicine (because) you sick, your wife sick, your children sick.”

But others said that some people simply overestimated what their settlement would do, buying cars and houses and then not being able to make the payments.

“Many of the people did great things with the money and they still have a little left, but there were some that were ruthless and squandered their money,” Baker, the executive director of CAP, said. “But that was their money.”

Long added: “The little bit of money that you got, either you buy your house or car or whatever, and (when) you was through you didn’t even have money next year to pay them high gas bills that came on the next year.”

Baker said his organization held investment seminars for the claimants. He used his own settlement money to pay off his house and car.

“I still live right around the corner, I drive a 1994 Suburban, I’m not rich,” Baker said. “I did not ask for more than I deserved, and that’s what I got.”

Baker said he wished some people would have used their money to give $5 or $10 to CAP, which struggles to make the rent on its building on Cobb Avenue.

“A lot of people are thankful but not grateful,” he said. “Nowhere else in the country has anyone accomplished what we have accomplished in Anniston, Ala., and we are still trying to figure out how come Joe Blow got more money than I did, how come my brother got more money than I did.”

Far From Hollywood

In the movie “Erin Brockovich” the lawyers are the heroes, with Julia Roberts and Albert Finney winning millions of dollars for their clients and getting rich in the process.

But in Anniston’s decidedly un-Hollywood version, many plaintiffs say they thought their lawyers got more money than they deserved. Some of the plaintiffs in the Abernathy case even tried to sue their lawyer, Stewart, a lawsuit that was barred by Judge Joel Laird.

“I think that the lawyers and everybody else was misleading,” Ray said.

“It was enough money where the lawyer could have been paid and been fairly compensated and the people if they was given their fair share, the way it’s supposed to have been done they could have made adjustments and changes, relocated or whatever they wanted to do to get out of this predicament and made a new start,” Long said.

Forty percent is standard compensation for lawyers in class-action lawsuits. Baker, who said he received death threats when the settlement checks were sent out because of his role in bringing together the lawyers and claimants, said he respected the lawyers and thought others should, too.

“That’s why they went to school – we wouldn’t have gotten a dime if it wasn’t for the lawyers,” Baker said. “The question (of) is it done fairly, that’s up to the courts. The courts say it was done fairly, fine, I ain’t no judge, I ain’t no lawyer.”

Baker said that one of the purposes of CAP is to continue helping the community even after all the settlement money is gone.

“I can’t say whether (most people) are back where they started because any amount of money is an uplift for the time being,” he said. “We are not better off than where we were but we can get better if we stick together.”

Mock crime scene sharpens police skills

Rachael Scarborough King
Star Staff Writer
Published: August 11, 2006

OHATCHEE – Police in Ohatchee rushed to the site of the old fire department Wednesday and discovered a bullet-riddled car and a trail of blood that led to a chaotic scene inside.

Sort of.

The entire “crime scene” was staged by the Ohatchee Police Department and Jacksonville Crime Lab, although the drivers rubbernecking on Alabama 144 didn’t know that.

The mock crime scene was part of a day-long training program for police from Ohatchee and many other departments around the state and from as far away as Tennessee.

It is important for officers to be well versed in collecting and processing evidence because they are often the first responders to crimes, said Mark Hopwood, director of the Jacksonville Crime Lab.

“These are the guys answering the 911 calls that walk up, they’re the first ones there,” Hopwood said. “(The officer has to make sure) he hasn’t contaminated anything and he’s not stepping on the bloody shoeprints or whatever.”

All officers take a crime-scene course at the police academy and have to complete 12 hours of continuing education annually, which could include this training session.

Ohatchee Police Chief Wayne Chandler said he thinks ongoing training is essential for officers. He added that he wanted to make the course affordable, charging $25 per officer, even though he has seen similar classes advertised for as much as several hundred dollars per participant.

“I think (crime scene investigation) is a skill that we need to put a lot of emphasis on here, it’s very critical to a successful investigation of a crime and prosecution of a defendant,” Chandler said. “If you fail to process the scene well and do a good job, it could result in a person who’s guilty going free.”

Indeed, during the morning’s classroom session Hopwood emphasized the importance of crime-scene processing in an overall investigation. He said the Calhoun County district attorney likes to utilize physical exhibits such as photographs and sketches in the courtroom.

Common errors, Hopwood said, include cross-contamination of different pieces of evidence, not collecting a large enough sample, not obtaining a standard of comparison and not maintaining a chain of custody for the evidence.

Advances in technology also mean that officers have to be more careful at crime scenes.

“If you sneeze on a crime scene you’re leaving your DNA there,” Hopwood said. “Technology’s got that far now, as opposed to 20 years ago (when) no one had ever heard of a DNA databank or a firearms databank.”

The day’s activities started with classroom instruction, including a slide-show presentation. Hopwood, whose office provides forensic investigation for nine counties in northeast Alabama, outlined a case in which a crime was reported in Piedmont, the victim’s body was found in Cherokee County, and his head – which had been severed with a chainsaw – was found in the river in Gadsden.

Hopwood said one of the goals of the program was to show officers how his lab can help them and also how they can help the lab when collecting evidence.

After lunch, the officers hopped in their cruisers and headed over to the old fire department on Alabama 144. There, they found a beat-up Lincoln Continental – donated by a local auto mechanic and shot to pieces by Ohatchee officers – and, inside the building, splatters of “blood” on the floor.

The investigators split into teams to examine the car, the building and the perimeter, and got to work setting up the police tape. Several people headed over to check out the car; the next group noticed that the first had nearly walked over a shell casing, which they promptly circled with orange spray paint.

Officers engaged in some friendly competition, calling out, “You painted this (bullet) orange!” and joking, “We found O.J.’s glove,” but they approached the task energetically in the 100-degree heat, circling every soda can, cigarette butt and footprint in sight.

Capt. Ellison Beggs of the Birmingham Police Department called the course “excellent.”

“For me a lot of it was refresher, but I also have a new understanding of what’s available, what the state has to offer, the services, the facilities, the new techniques they can provide, and after 29 years things do improve,” she said.

Chandler said he thinks there is a need for more of this kind of training.

“You can pretty well see by the response we got to this class that it’s something there’s a great deal of interest in,” he said. “This kind of class is something that every officer needs, because that evidence he collects must be admissible in court and it’s critical to the prosecutor.”

23 rooms added to reduce wait times

Rachael Scarborough King
Star Staff Writer
Published: August 9, 2006

Emergency rooms are notorious for long waits and crowded conditions. Regional Medical Center in Anniston hopes to reduce the amount of time patients have to spend in those conditions with 23 new private rooms for patients.

The new rooms, 11 of which opened July 24, are intended for patients who do not need surgery but who must stay in the hospital for illnesses such as flu or pneumonia or because they need monitoring.

In the past, crowding in the hospital’s 36-bed medical unit meant some people had to spend one or more nights in the emergency room.

“Emergency rooms are designed to treat patients on a short-term basis … so they’re not really designed for in-patient care,” said Joy Webb, vice president for patient services.

Webb said the new rooms will offer patients a more comfortable hospital experience.

“It’s just more suitable,” she said. “They can be private and get the care delivered in privacy.”

The plans for the new rooms have been in the works for about a year, Webb said. The hospital is seeking more nurses to be able to open the rest of the 23 beds.

“With the national nursing shortage, we’re in the middle of that, too,” Webb said.

The 11 new rooms have been full since they opened, said Elaine Davis, assistant vice president for patient services. That means the 36 beds in the older medical unit also have been full.

“Our goal is that everyone have a private room,” Davis said. “During peak season … that’s not always possible.”

The new unit could accommodate up to 35 patients if some of the rooms were made semi-private, with two beds to a room. Currently, each room includes a bed, private bathroom and chairs where visitors can sleep.

“The community relies on this hospital for most of its care, and we’re just very excited to get these beds,” Davis said. “(It’s) something as simple as the comfort of the bed they’re on, a stretcher versus a hospital bed.”

Webb said patients with medical diagnoses – like those who will stay in the new rooms – make up the majority of people admitted to the hospital.

“When patients are sick, any amount of time they have to wait is too long, they want to get out of the emergency room into a bed and feel like their treatment is continuing,” she said. “We like to do that as quickly as possible.”

Susan Williamson, director of community relations at RMC, said she didn’t know how much construction of the rooms cost. The unit was renovated from a same-day surgery area, which was moved to a different part of the hospital.

Williamson said the doctors and nurses have told her the new beds are helping to alleviate long waits in the emergency room.

“It has proven to work so far, to help ease that,” she said. “Of course, that’s kind of a fluid level.”

Webb said patients appreciate the greater privacy.

“The nurses, we hear, I think we were open a week and they’d already received flowers and a thank-you note from a family,” she said.