The first couple of days of each new year around the Independent Herald office are — as is the case at many community newspapers — spent in anticipation of the “first baby of the year.”
At this time of year, so close to the holidays, government bodies meet far less and criminals tend to behave themselves a bit more than at other times of the year. The “baby of the year” is often the top story of the first week of the new year, and it is often in this space on page one of that week’s newspaper where the picture of the special baby and his or her proud parents are featured.
While this edition of the Independent Herald — the first of 2013 — actually went to press around midnight on New Year’s Eve, which would have made it impossible to include a feature on the “first baby of the year,” there is no baby to be featured this week, or next week, or the next.
Scott County’s newest resident will likely have entered the world by the time this paper is in the hands of its readers, but she will have done so at a hospital outside Scott County — LaFollette Medical Center, Methodist Medical Center of Oak Ridge, Tennova North Knoxville or a hospital deeper into Knoxville.
And the lack of that “first baby” is a stark reminder of the plight faced by Scott Countians since the local hospital closed May 24, 2012. Emergency health care and other types of health care requiring hospital services are no longer possible without traveling outside the local community; the nearest E.R. is at least a half-hour away for most Scott County residents.
Realistically, many Scott County mothers over the years have begun using obstetricians who practice outside Scott County. As such, many — perhaps most — Scott County babies were being delivered at hospitals outside the local community even before the hospital closed its doors last May, a sharp contrast from the days when Dr. George Kline, Dr. H.M. Leeds and other local physicians delivered thousands of babies at the facility on the hill in mid-town Oneida.
But for mothers who were unable or unwilling to leave Scott County, the hospital was not only convenient, but vital.
Records on the first, “first baby of the year” to be born at Scott County Hospital have proven difficult to track down. That baby would have been born on or around Jan. 1, 1957. The first “first baby” featured in this newspaper was Sarah Angela Jeffers — born Jan. 1, 1977, the first New Year’s Day the Independent Herald was in circulation. She was delivered by the late Dr. Kline. Her parents were James and Cinderetta Jeffers of Robbins.
Thirty-five years later, the last “first baby” was born to another Robbins couple. Drs. John and Kathy Martin delivered Halley Danielle Hall on Jan. 1, 2012. Her parents are Daniel and Samantha Hall.
To be fair, the “first baby” tradition is not an unbroken one; there was a period of several years in the mid 1980s when no babies were being delivered at Scott County Hospital.
But over the years there have been dozens of New Year’s babies born at the hospital, and this New Year’s Day marked the first since 1956 — when the facility was still under construction — that its doors have been closed.
The Independent Herald caught up with one of those “first babies.” Aaron Hamby was delivered by Dr. Bruce Coffey at Scott County Hospital 30 years ago — at 17 minutes after midnight on New Year’s Day, 1983.
“My mother disputes the accusation that she held off till the new year,” Hamby jokes.
Like thousands of other Scott Countians, Hamby regrets the closing of the hospital and its implications on the local community.
“The facts are, we are now endowed as a community with great wealth or great opportunity being born into Scott County,” he said. “My family was the same in this paradigm. My mom really could not afford to drive out of town to see other doctors that we deemed ‘better’ than the ones we had in our area, so she went to the local hospital and clinics for prenatal care.
“My delivering doctor was Dr. Bruce Coffey, as he was for probably thousands of babies in Scott County. And, the fact is, I was born without any problems and no complaints from my mother or family.”
The good news is that there will likely be a “first baby of 2013.” It will simply be a somewhat belated birth. As this New Year’s Day comes and goes, efforts to reopen the hospital appear to be in the closing stages.
After months of exhaustive efforts and negotiations between local officials and outside parties with varying degrees of interest, Scott County Commission signed off on a deal to transfer ownership of the hospital to S.M. Promen of Tennessee, a startup firm funded by venture capitalists and founded by long-time hospital administrator Irving Sawyers.
That effort is now out of Scott County’s hands. After County Mayor Jeff Tibbals and attorney John Beaty worked out the fine details of the contract with Sawyers and his firm, the matter was sent to the state attorney general for his approval.
A target date for closing the deal has been twice pushed back as the attorney general’s final stamp of approval is awaited. First Dec. 21, the target date was delayed until Dec. 31. And while the Independent Herald went to press before the end of the day Monday, it appeared that the sun would set with no firm news out of Nashville.
Still, local officials have expressed optimism that the deal will close sooner rather than later, and the hospital will reopen at some point in the weeks ahead.
When such a time is realized, things will be business as usual at Scott County Hospital. In the meantime, a vacant facility stands sentry on the hill overlooking town — awaiting the day when this community’s newest arrivals can truly say — like Aaron Hamby and thousands of others — that they were “born and raised” in Scott County.
“With the reputation of merely being born at Scott County Hospital, I will always have the right to say that I was ‘born on a hillside,’” Hamby said.