April 1, 1979, Lebanon’s Dr. Robert Bone’s vision finally came to fruition.
The young dual-certified pediatrician and surgeon, who just turned 43 that day, joined his fellow visionaries, colleagues and community leaders to cut the ribbon marking the opening of Lebanon’s 65-bed University Medical Center.
The hospital opened with eight physicians and 57 employees overall.
April 1, 2014, UMC staff and community leaders celebrated 35 years of growth.
The hospital now boasts 245 patient beds, 238 physicians and more than 800 full- and part-time associates.
And it began with a small group of men who saw a need.
Hometown son returns
Dr. Bone came from a family of doctors. His grandfather, also Dr. Robert Bone, and his great-grandfather both practiced in Wilson County.
So after completing his undergraduate degree and medical school, both at Vanderbilt, as well as an internship and residency at Stanford Hospital in California, he returned to Lebanon.
He went back to Vanderbilt to become board certified as a pediatrician and soon began practicing under the man he would come to call his mentor, Dr. Charles “Chili” Lowe, at MacFarland Hospital in the mid-1960s.
By that time, MacFarland Hospital had about 74 rooms, a delivery room, a nursery, a laboratory, an x-ray department and an emergency room.
But it was still overrun, according to Bone.
“With all the babies being born, we didn’t have enough room,” he said.
He recalled staff pulling drawers out in new mothers’ rooms to use the drawers as makeshift bassinets for the newborn babies.
“We had beds filled on the porches, in the hallways…We even had patients set up in the basement,” said Bone.
He soon realized there weren’t many options to correct the situation with the available space.
“We realized the community needed a new hospital,” he said.
When he started discussion his idea with Lowe, though, his mentor suggested he beef up his credentials before trying such an endeavor.
“He said, ‘Son, pediatricians don’t build hospitals; surgeons or internists build hospitals,” recalled Bone.
So Bone did a residency in Jacksonville, Fla., to become certified as a surgeon. But he never lost sight of his ultimate goal. Once a month, Bone caught a flight from Jacksonville to come back to Lebanon to continue planning.
At that point, Bone, Lowe, Dr. Marvin Vickers and Jim Kinnard, an attorney, were collaborating on the project.
Finally, after years of planning, Bone and eight others pooled their resources to buy a tract of farmland totaling more than 100 acres in 1974.
The group allocated 10 acres for the hospital and donated 2 acres for a psychiatric facility.
The next year, the group applied for a Certificate of Need for a 65-bed hospital.
Competition fights back
As Bone and his colleagues prepared to break ground on their new hospital, MacFarland Hospital owners, Humana, did not take kindly to the threatened competition.
The company quickly filed legal action to forestall the new hospital.
“They were saying that they could do everything we could do,” said Bone.
The courts, however, found in favor of Bone and his colleagues. Humana appealed, and again the courts ruled against Humana.
Bone said members of the community rallied behind him and his colleagues throughout the legal battles. At one point, roughly 1,100 of Watertown’s then about 1,200 residents signed a petition supporting the planned hospital.
“We absolutely could not have done it without the support we received from the community,” said Bone.
After four years of legal battles that went all the way to the Tennessee Supreme Court, though, the group was clear to proceed with their hospital.
From the ground, up
Nov. 1977, then-U.S. Representative Al Gore, Jr. and The Democrat’s Yvonne Wallace joined community leaders to break ground for the new hospital, and when the hospital finally opened about a year-and-a-half later, Gore returned to cut the ribbon and speak at the opening ceremony.
Pam Tomlinson and Guy Keifer, Jr., were among the hospital’s founding staff.
Tomlinson began her career at UMC before there technically was a UMC, when she was hired on as an administrative secretary in February 1979.
“I was in administration with just me and the administrator, so we were a two-person administrative team,” said Tomlinson.
Eventually, though, her position evolved until she was director of human resources.
“The file drawer of my desk had the personnel files of those 57 people…then over the years there were thousands of employees that passed through here,” said Tomlinson. “At one time we were considered the second-largest employer in the county, right behind the school system.”
Keifer was an East-Tennessee boy with a freshly minted degree in pharmacy.
“I came as the first pharmacist,” said Keifer, who still works in the hospital’s pharmacy. “I was a year out of school…I had just a few short weeks to put everything together before they opened April 1.”
He served as the hospital’s head pharmacist for about 20 years before taking a spot as a staff pharmacist.
A new direction and a new partner
When Bone and his colleagues founded the hospital, they set it up as a nonprofit hospital.
Although University Medical Center was not officially affiliated with Cumberland University, or Cumberland College as it was called at the time, the college had strong ties to the community and to the hospital’s founders by extension.
So when Cumberland College was in danger, UMC leaders felt they needed to intercede on the school’s behalf.
By the early 1980s, Cumberland was in severe financial straits.
Current Cumberland University President Harvill Eaton described the debt as, “hanging over Cumberland’s shoulders in a big way.”
According to Bone, he and his colleagues felt the school was too strong of a community asset not to be saved. They decided to sell the hospital and use the proceeds to pay much of the school’s outstanding debts.
“I don’t know how much it was exactly; I just know it was a Godsend,” said Eaton.
The group sold the hospital to American Healthcorp in 1982. In 1992, National Medical Enterprises, which owned UMC at the time, acquired and merged MacFarland Hospital with UMC.
“There is therefore this historical link from that date between the hospital and Cumberland through today,” said Eaton.
In fact, Bone to this day holds a seat on Cumberland’s board and Eaton holds a seat on UMC’s board.
The future of health care in Wilson County
To Bone and Eaton, that link between Cumberland and UMC is the key to the future growth of health care in Wilson County.
“When I came here in ’04, the nursing school was tiny,” said Eaton.
So he spoke to the hospital’s CEO at the time.
“I said, ‘I know what I need and that is, I’ve got a nursing program that just needs help to grow and that help is space.’ I said, ‘I know you’re going to need nurses. Will you give me space?’” recalled Eaton.
So the hospital made space available onsite to Cumberland’s nursing program classes and continues to do so.
“That allowed us to grow and provide, in my opinion, a better education for our nursing students,” said Eaton.
Beyond that, Eaton said Cumberland routinely seeks the hospital’s input on the school’s health care program offerings.
And with the growing health care field, those offerings will be critical to Cumberland’s future.
“We’re going to be adding health professions here, and that is our highest priority,” said Eaton. “That [will] be done in consultation with our hospital. There’s nothing we do on health care here that we don’t confer [with them on].”
Eaton said the relationship between UMC and Cumberland is more than symbiotic.
“It is, ‘I don’t know how you separate the two,’” he said.
Eaton said he’s optimistic about the direction UMC is going since it was recently bought by Community Health Systems.
“[Health Management Associates] was a good partner, but I think with our new partner, CHS, it’s going to be an even better relationship.
UMC is the closest hospital to the corporation’s home office in Franklin.
“This change to CHS is good for Lebanon,” said Eaton.
He also said Lebanon should be proud of its hospital.
“We’ve got a gem in UMC, so we need to be proud of it,” said Eaton.