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'They threw us away': Cottage Hospital surgeons fired, staff fear of closing

All but one of the surgeons at the clinic affiliated with Galesburg Cottage Hospital were fired Thursday. Remaining staff voiced fears the hospital will soon close.

GALESBURG, Ill. — The hallways of Galesburg Cottage Hospital felt hallow Friday, Jan. 7 as doctors and patients were noticeably missing. After punching their time cards, surgical nurses greeted one another with the usual morning hellos before engaging in tearful discussions of "where will you go next?"

Sometime after 4 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 6, an email went to all but one of the surgeons at the hospital's Knox Clinic. The message: "Employment contract is terminated."

According to the email from Knox Clinic President Dr. Sanjay Sharma to the surgical doctors, the corporation filed for bankruptcy on Jan. 3. Motions to reject the doctors' contracts will be filed as result, and they are no longer authorized to perform any services for Knox Clinic.

RELATED: Clinics associated with Galesburg Cottage Hospital file for bankruptcy

The remaining surgeon employed at the Knox Clinic is an OB-GYN, and the clinic will continue to provide women's health and family services as of Friday, Cottage Hospital Spokesperson Courtney Bibo told News 8.

With the news of doctors let go Thursday night, many among the remaining medical staff were left wondering how long the facility could remain open when they were already understaffed.

Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services announced in December that Medicare would no longer make payments for impatient hospital services for anyone admitted after Jan. 14. The decision cited CMS investigators finding the hospital had violated four conditions of the Medicare program and fallen out of compliance when it comes to patient rights, nursing services, physical environment and governing body.

CMS investigative reports revealed a chaotic, understaffed and unorganized situation inside Cottage Hospital, with medical services posing "an immediate risk of serious injury, impairment or death" to both staff and patients.

On the morning of Friday, Jan. 7, News 8 was invited inside Cottage Hospital by a nurse, for an exclusive look at the ramifications of the surgeon's termination. As one team of nurses clocked in for the day, the tears began flowing. Several questioned how 'this' could be happening, as they punched in for the very last time. 

Instead of the typical hustle and noise of a surgical unit, Friday morning's gathering was a somber one. Empty hallways were marked with empty chairs and dimmed lights. 

There had been five surgeries scheduled for Friday morning, with four being colonoscopies that require patients to prep the night before. After the abrupt termination of the surgeon set to perform the procedures, they all had to be canceled. On the wall next to the unit's desk, the scheduling board sat empty. 

At one point, the surgical carts were wheeled past News 8, with an employee saying they would never again be used for surgery at Galesburg Cottage Hospital. 

One nurse broke down in tears remembering she had just scheduled three more surgeries for the following week. 

Each member of the team seemed to tear up as a new person walked around the corner. The morning was filled with 'goodbyes' and hugs, seemingly marking the end of an era. At one point, a group of employees counted up their collective years at Cottage and came out to well over 200. 

Many of the nurses carried bags and began to fill them with personal items from their lockers and desks. There were conversations of who had gotten a new job where, and who had decided to stick it out and come back to Cottage the following week. 

Downstairs, the hospital's HR department had a sign posted, announcing it would be closed on both Jan. 6 and 7. 

The owners of Cottage and the associated Knox Clinic Corporation, Dr. Sanjay and Priyam Sharma, have been unreachable for weeks, said employees. News 8 has made multiple attempts to contact the Sharmas as well as their lawyer, but have not heard back. It's been roughly 18 months since the Sharmas took over at Cottage. 

One employee blasted the owners, saying, "Their lack of respect for people's lives, people's jobs and our community … this is a huge, horrible thing for Galesburg." 

Government reports from inside Cottage in November 2021 show a disorganized, chaotic scene with an understaffed crew struggling to stay afloat. In June of 2021, federal investigators noted a patient had needed CPR but there hadn't been enough nurses on staff to administer it. That patient eventually died. 

"They had cut so many people's jobs and then they didn't think about who was gonna do that person's job," said one nurse. That same employee telling News 8 she lost 50 pounds in the last year, due to the stress of work. "What happened to my hospital - to my Cottage family - I was literally throwing up because I couldn't stomach what I was watching." 

On Friday morning, one window on the fifth floor of Cottage read: "Liars. Shame on the Sharmas."

But for all of the tears and anxiety present at the hospital, one freshly-terminated surgeon told News 8 the staff could not be robbed of their dignity. 

"Doors will eventually open for these people," he said. "They were good. And they care." 

Between tears, it's what nurse after nurse remarked: "We are Cottage strong." 

Find WQAD's full Galesburg Cottage Hospital coverage here.

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