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'The ship is leveling' | 2 months after Cottage's closure, OSF St. Mary says it found its footing

Since Cottage closed its doors on Jan. 8, St. Mary has been Galesburg's sole hospital. Now, OSF officials say the hardest parts of that transition are behind them.

GALESBURG, Ill. — Just a few months in, 2022 has already been a hallmark year for OSF St. Mary Medical Center. Now, hospital officials say they've found their footing and are confident about their future in Galesburg. 

The year began with the sudden closure of Galesburg Cottage Hospital, following an investigation by the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services. Government reports from that investigation revealed Cottage was understaffed and mismanaged, putting staff and patients at risk for injury and death. After abruptly firing entire teams from the hospital, including anesthesiologists and surgeons, Cottage closed its doors on Saturday, Jan. 8. 

Since then, the owners, Dr. Sanjay and Priyam Sharma, have maintained the hospital will reopen, but it's unclear how, at this point. 

RELATED: Police reports detail bomb threat to Cottage Hospital the day it closed

The moment Cottage's doors were shut, OSF St. Mary suddenly became Galesburg's sole hospital. Officials at the facility say staff had been preparing to become the area's main provider for over two years and had been accepting Cottage patients for ICU care, emergencies, surgeries and procedures at an accelerated rate for the last six to eight months of 2021, leaving the hospital well-poised to make the switch. Now, two months on, those same leaders say the most difficult parts of such a transition are behind them. 

"We're doing well. The ship is leveling and we're feeling very confident about our ability to serve the region and the community," said Lisa DeKezel, president of St. Mary. "We kind of are standing back and looking at it and saying, 'Here we are.'"

But it hasn't been an easy journey.

At the same time Cottage was closing, the Omicron variant was ripping through Knox County, driving up Covid-19 case counts and filling up health care facilities. According to DeKezel, St. Mary's own patient capacity was already surging before it began to take on displaced Cottage patients.

RELATED: 'Our family's broken' | Community meeting addresses financial, mental impacts of Cottage Hospital closure

"Our emergency department was well above capacity," she said. 

To help ease some of the staff's burden, St. Mary established a special hotline for patients looking to transfer care from Cottage Hospital. During the first few weeks, DeKezel says there were as many as 20 calls per day. 

Most of the questions revolved around finding new providers and seeing who was available at St. Mary. However, a large majority of patients called in asking about the transfer of medical records, according to OSF. 

DeKezel says St. Mary did have limited interactions with the Sharma family while trying to set up those record transfers. She wouldn't reveal much about what was discussed during those talks, but did say the process became smoother once a point-person was established at Cottage. 

"Once we were able to get a point person to send those requests -- whether it was somebody local or remotely, I'm honestly not sure -- we were able to electronically send those requests and then, in turn, have for the most part been able to receive a majority of the medical records," DeKezel said. 

She says anyone still having difficulty receiving or accessing their records can contact St. Mary. 

Now, the hotline's call volume has dropped off to just four or five each day, noted DeKezel. In fact, the hotline might soon no longer be needed, she said. 

But it wasn't just calls coming into the hospital. Over the past year, more than 60 former Cottage employees have transferred into the OSF health care system, with many ending up across town at St. Mary. 

"I kind of refer to it as they're locked in arms now, united, to serve the community and they're coming together beautifully," DeKezel said. "We have been incredibly blessed. I can't even tell you what it's like to watch this melding of the Cottage and OSF teams." 

RELATED: Galesburg job fairs continue, as area hospitals hope to recruit fired Cottage employees

That bond might have become even stronger on Monday, Feb. 28, after OSF HealthCare announced an intent to purchase real estate, medical equipment and other assets from Galesburg Cottage Hospital. 

According to a press release, the transaction of hospital assets within Galesburg would close by spring 2022 if consummated. The release also stated St. Mary has enough capacity to provide inpatient care and does not intend to perform those services at the former Cottage hospital property. 

"We can honestly say we've kind of made it through these past few months and we'll continue to do everything we can to support our community, to understand our community and to serve," DeKezel said.

It's a confident outlook for the rest of 2022, after such an intense beginning. However, it's one DeKezel is sure St. Mary can live up to. 

"We all feel very firmly planted and like we found our footing," she said. "It's a great day. Great to see everyone coming together to serve our community as one hospital and we all feel very firmly planted and like we have found our footing."

Find WQAD's full coverage of the Galesburg Cottage Hospital closure here.

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