Briggs reflects on closing of St. Mary’s

Sandra ClarkFeature

Richard Briggs has seen combat in Afghanistan and Iraq. He’s performed intricate heart surgery, literally holding a patient’s life in his hands. But this tough guy’s voice broke when asked his feelings about Thursday’s announcement of the closing of the hospital that will always be called St. Mary’s.

“It’s sad,” he said. “It’s just sad.”

Briggs, a state senator, said Tennova officials teleconferenced with legislators prior to the public announcement that hospitals in Knoxville and Morristown will be permanently shuttered on Dec. 28.

This photo from the Diocese of Knoxville shows St. Mary’s Sisters at the hospital.

“It wasn’t a surprise,” said Briggs, who continued to practice at St. Mary’s, even after his practice was sold to Covenant Health in 2012. “I’ve worked at every hospital in town, but St. Mary’s was special. I loved what the (Sisters of Mercy) had done. I loved how the doctors and nurses worked together. There wasn’t much turnover. We ran a tight ship and we took care of patients.”

Tennova has beefed up facilities at North Knoxville Medical Center (Emory Road near I-75) as well as at Turkey Creek Medical Center to serve Knox County patients. In a statement, Tennova’s East Tennessee CEO Tony Benton promised “a smooth transition of care.”

Tennova North has added cardiac catheterization labs and operating rooms. Capacity for surgery and childbirth services is being added, with completion by next summer.

Turkey Creek Medical Center has added beds and operating rooms for complex general and cardiovascular surgery. Open heart surgery and neurosurgery services have been consolidated at Turkey Creek with a new cardiovascular intensive care unit to be complete in spring 2019.

Briggs said his home in Farragut is a 10-minute drive to Turkey Creek (and a 45-minute walk, which he’s done). He probably will continue to work part-time there, but he may retire. “I’ll turn 66 on Dec. 7, and I haven’t decided on what to do.”

Briggs already has cut back. He misses the entire winter while in Nashville. And he’s been pulling a four-day shift every third weekend to give his current partners the time off. He said working on-call nights and weekends is the toughest part of heart surgery.

If Tennessee had adopted Gov. Bill Haslam’s Insure TN (which Briggs supported) would that have saved St. Mary’s?

Possibly, says Briggs, who cited three factors in the closure: aging physical plant (“We could have spent $10 million on replacing the electrical and heating systems – stuff you didn’t even see”); a convoluted screw-up on the wage index for reimbursement that puts Knoxville at a disadvantage to even Chattanooga and Johnson City; and the large number of uninsured patients (“uncompensated care”).

“I still think (adopting) Insure TN would have helped.” Republican Briggs said he will file a new plan for covering uninsured people when the General Assembly reconvenes. He faces Democratic challenger Jamie Ballinger in the Nov. 6 election.

Dr. Briggs recalled a colleague, a crusty old physician who was hospitalized in heart failure. After Briggs had done all he could, he recommended that the doctor transfer to Vanderbilt to await a heart transplant.

“He said, ‘Rick, I was born at St. Mary’s and I spent my entire professional career here. If I die here, it will complete the cycle. I won’t go to Vanderbilt.’ He died the next morning.”

The Dec. 28 closing of St. Mary’s will complete the cycle for many North Knox families – like mine. My brother and sister were born there; my mother and dad died there; my sister got her nurses training there. It was a special place in part because it was the only woman-run medical center from its inception in 1930 until recent times.

And now it’s gone. That’s sad. It’s just really sad.

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