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Community remembers story of Ironton hospital

It is an old building, empty now, its windows dark and its better days behind it.

But its rooms and corridors, so silent now, still hold a wealth of memories, some of which were shared Sunday among friends and neighbors.

Several dozen people gathered on what used to be the parking lot of the old Lawrence County General Hospital, also known as River Valley Health Systems, to bid farewell during a decommissioning ceremony.

The hospital closed in January 2001. The building was sold to Our Lady of Bellefonte Hospital in Russell, Ky., but a planned reopening as an urgent care center never materialized. The building will now be torn down to make way for upscale housing that will be known as Beechwood Place.

The hospital, opened in the late 1930s with great fanfare (a drum and bugle corps led the way from downtown to the hospital site), was given its benediction complete with prayers, the reading of Bible verses and songs from the Ironton High School Choir.

For some, the old hospital put bread on their table.

“I worked here, I retired from here,” Tommy Cotton Christian said as he waited for the decommissioning ceremony to begin. “I worked here full-time 11 years and part-time six years. I wound up working in maintenance. I just hate to see it go.”

Dr. Burton Payne practiced at the hospital for decades during his career. He noted that “when a family member or friend dies, we celebrate their temporary human existence on this earth and the fact they are going to move to a heavenly body. We can’t do that with this hospital, so we must do this (have the ceremony).”

He said what made the hospital so special was that friends and neighbors cared for each other like family. He likened the decommissioning ceremony to saying “goodbye to an old friend.”

Nina Saunders worked there, too. After the ceremony the former payroll clerk reminisced that “it was like family. Everyone knew everyone.”

For others who gathered Sunday, the hospital was the font of medical care over the years.

“I was born here,” retired Lawrence County Common Pleas Judge Richard Walton said in his remarks to the gathering. He mused he had left parts of him at the hospital over the years.

“I had my tonsils removed here,” he quipped. “And a kidney stone.” While the onlookers chuckled, it was obvious they understood. They too, had left parts of themselves at the hospital but walked away with memories.

“I had my three girls here,” one woman said.

Ironton Port Authority Chairman Bill Dickens said once the building is razed next spring, the hospital property will be divided into lots for new houses.

OLBH Chief Executive Officer Mark Gordon said the standing-room-only crowd was a collective testament to what the hospital once meant to the community it served.

Walton said while the community may find it sad to see the hospital torn down, the community must look to the future.

“Times change,” he said, “and we change with it.”