Features

Chris Ware – Panola Medical Center

Mississippi staff shows no ‘Quit’ in reopening hospital

Everyone at Panola Medical Center wished CEO Quentin Whitwell a safe and speedy recovery when he contracted COVID-19 in September 2021. And, when he returned to work at the Batesville, Mississippi, hospital, they got a big surprise.

In the 10 days Whitwell recuperated at home, he decided it was time to reopen Quitman Community Hospital in Marks, Mississippi. The hospital was debt-ridden, understaffed and underused when it closed its doors in 2016.

Even without a pandemic, rural communities need better medical centers. But as Panola Chief Operating Officer Chris Ware notes, the plan had some complications—including how to staff the hospital as labor shortages were already hitting the community hard. Oh, and Quitman Community Hospital had to reopen 45 days before its state-issued certificate of need expired. Getting a new one would be like starting from scratch, Ware says.

“Quentin’s an entrepreneur, and sometimes he has unconventional ideas. So, I was like ‘are you kidding me?’” he recalls.

Ware was tasked with getting the hospital reopened by Halloween. He was also tasked to be the message bearer for the rest of the hospital.

“Everyone looked at me like I was crazy, but I’m a doer,” Ware says. “I had to start from scratch, writing on a huge whiteboard in my office until it was completely covered. It was a massive undertaking.”

Filling a need

Ware, Whitwell and the staff of Panola Medical Center were told of the approval to operate Quitman Community Hospital in a partnership with clinical health care providers Delta Medical Foundation late in the afternoon on Friday, Oct. 29.

They celebrated with high-fives, reminding Ware of the joy and emotions he sees as a sideline reporter for the South Panola High School football team. But this time, no one was getting flagged for excessive celebration.

Quitman Community Hospital serves a county where census data shows the median annual household income is $25,383 and the poverty rate is 35.6 percent. Without it, residents had to drive 30 minutes for hospital care. Reopening it provides about 100 jobs, too.

As Ware chatted with Vision in December 2022, the region was enduring the resurgence of the COVID-19 pandemic and its variants. But responding to the fifth wave is helped by having another hospital, even to provide emergency services and other basic care.

Ware says the 50-year-old hospital building had been maintained but wasn’t up to code for life safety requirements, including its fire doors and alarms. Reopening required new plumbing, paint, walls and ceilings. It would also involve building more isolation rooms, including one in the ER, to help treat pandemic victims.

“I gave the contractors the date of completion and they didn’t know if they could make it happen.’” Ware says of the vendors involved in reopening.

Small town care

Ware credits the Quitman County Board of Supervisors for its eagerness and efforts.

“I couldn’t be there every day,” Ware says. “The members were my eyes and ears and made sure things were going well and according to plan.”

Staffing remains a challenge. Ware again credits Panola Medical Center nurses and physicians—who were already working under duress from the pandemic—with taking on the extra shifts and duties needed to get Quitman Community Hospital operating again.

Now, he’s looking to solve labor shortages at Panola Medical Center—which has 115 beds—and Quitman Community Hospital. Ware says they continue to look at incentives and bonuses to attract new employees and reward those who’ve stayed. Although Memphis, Tennessee, is an hour north of the hospitals and presents competition for labor, there’s an additional selling point for Panola and Quitman Community Hospital the big city can’t match.

“A smaller hospital is cohesive and they really buy in to the culture collectively,” Ware says. “It’s more of a hometown feel, with a culture of helping your fellow staff and community.”

At home and helping

The pace of events and the pandemic’s resurgence left Ware little time to chat, let alone reflect, but he says it’s now time to give attention to administering Panola Medical Center. He’s soon to celebrate 15 years there, having started there as a respiratory therapist after working in Memphis for nearly a decade.

“I worked in Memphis in big corporate hospitals. I decided to come back home to make our hospital better,” he says. “This is not a big town. I know pretty much everyone that comes in. I like being able to give them quality service, to get them healthy and get them home.”

Married and the father of three, two of whom play baseball and softball in college (the youngest is likely to play baseball), Ware enjoys being active in the community outside work as well.

He became the sideline reporter for the South Panola High School Tigers in 2018 on the suggestion of a broadcaster. Ware was promoted to Panola Medical Center COO in 2019 after serving as director of operations.

“I can’t take credit for it all,” Ware says. “Quentin was the leading force to get Quitman reopened—his platform has always been to grow health care. I spearheaded the reopening, but the effort took everyone’s buy-in. This is one of the most underserved counties in the nation. They needed a hospital.”

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