By Megan Reed
DCN Regional Staff
Lumpkin County will have its own hospital again starting Tuesday, when Northeast Georgia Medical Center Lumpkin opens its doors at the former site of Chestatee Regional Hospital in Dahlonega.
NGMC Lumpkin will offer emergency and inpatient services, as well as imaging, lab and pharmacy report. The hospital, located at 227 Mountain Drive, will open at 7 a.m. Tuesday. The hospital will be staffed by physicians who also serve other NGMC hospitals.
Dr. Donna Whitfield, the hospital’s chief of medical staff, will be returning to the building where she started her career in 1976, the same year Chestatee Regional opened. She was an on-the-job trainee in the emergency room, checking patients in and getting their vital signs.
Whitfield later worked as an emergency medical technician in Lumpkin and Dawson counties, bringing patients to Chestatee Regional. After that, she became a respiratory therapist and was Chestatee Regional’s director of cardiopulmonary services. Once she finished medical school, she became a physician and has been working with Northeast Georgia Physicians Group in Dahlonega.
Now, Whitfield will lead the medical staff at NGMC Lumpkin in the community where her family has lived for more than five generations. She said Lumpkin has needed its own hospital—patients had been going to Gainesville during the year Chestatee Regional was closed.
“We can keep them here in their hometown so their families can be with them,” she said. “Otherwise, they have to ship to Gainesville, and it’s a hardship for a lot of families to go back and forth.”
Chestatee Regional closed in July 2018. The hospital, which was owned by a Florida lawyer, had been accused of being a farm for high insurance reimbursements tied to drug testing services, some of which were never performed at the hospital.
After Chestatee Regional closed its doors, the Northeast Georgia Health System extended its Dahlonega urgent care hours and provided paramedics for a third ambulance in Lumpkin.
Chris Dockery, chairman of the Lumpkin County Board of Commissioners, said the area has needed a reliable hospital, and he is excited for NGMC Lumpkin to open.
“There were times when it seemed like it would never happen, but it finally did. I think it’s certainly worth the wait,” Dockery said. “Health care is a very important part to any community that wants to thrive, and that concept is nothing new. … We have to have health care that’s reputable and health care that’s trusted, and I believe that Northeast Georgia Health System fits that very model.”
Dahlonega Mayor Sam Norton said people in Lumpkin had been concerned over the lack of a local emergency room over the past year.
“Opening this facility is a new and much-needed chapter in this community’s health care situation,” Norton said. “It’s been no secret that there’s been anguish and apprehension in the community over the absence of emergency health care. Even though there were some stop gap measures in place … that does not calm parents of little ones and children of older ones.”
Whitfield also said having a nearby emergency room would be a comfort to the community.
“The community is very excited to have this hospital reopened, just to have close medical care and an emergency room in case something happens, an accident at home. … Instead of having to drive to Gainesville, because that can be a 30, 40 minute drive,” she said.
Kay Hall will be the nurse manager for the emergency department and the inpatient medical unit at NGMC Lumpkin. After spending 40 years at NGMC Gainesville, she will be leading about 30 nurses in Lumpkin and is looking forward to working with the new team, which will include some former Chestatee Regional nurses.
“Some people, this was home to them. They’re excited to come back and provide care back to their community that they belong to,” Hall said. “There were people that worked at Northeast Georgia Medical Center that lived in this community and never worked at Chestatee previously that came to me because this is their community. … These are your family members, your friends, the people you know. It could be you tomorrow that needs the care.”
Hall, who lives in North Hall, said she had been involved in the design and planning process for NGMC Lumpkin and decided to transfer after learning more about the hospital on the hill.
“I fell in love with the location, fell in love with the community,” she said.
NGMC Lumpkin sits on Crown Mountain in Dahlonega, overlooking the University of North Georgia campus. And UNG has future plans for the building. The university hopes to use it for its health science programs. NGHS is currently leasing the property from the University System of Georgia Board of Regents.
NGHS plans to stay in Lumpkin, though. The health system owns a 57-acre site off Ga. 400 near the intersection with Ga. 60 and will build a permanent hospital there. That hospital is tentatively set to open in 2022.
NGMC Lumpkin joins NGHS’ other hospitals in Gainesville, Braselton and Winder. The health system is also investing $15 million in Habersham Medical Center in Demorest, with hopes of buying that hospital after five years.