ATLANTA -- Early in January 1953, Martha Wade was one of the first patients in the new Sumter Regional Hospital. She and her newborn son, Kellette, traveled in separate ambulances to the pristine new medical center from the old building where she had given birth.
Fifty-four years and two hospital additions later, Robyn Ragsdale was among the last patients there on March 1 as she was being treated for complications while waiting for her son, Walker, to be born.
She fled the hospital in the middle of the night with other women and children on a school bus headed for Albany. They were evacuated after a tornado wiped out walls, broke doors and windows, sent equipment flying down halls and filled floors with debris and water.
Martha and Kellette Wade were present Wednesday for a ceremony marking the beginning of demolition on what was left of the hospital to make way for a new facility targeted for completion in 2010.
"I'm sad," she said, as big yellow claws tore through bricks. "It was so nice when we moved into it."
Ragsdale skipped the festivities to have Walker's Christmas photograph made but drove by to make pictures for his baby book. He was born March 17 in Albany. The sight of the hospital where she had planned to have him brought back memories of the harrowing last night.
"But," she said, "I think in the long run this will be good for our community."
That's the message Sumter Regional Chief Executive David Seagraves tried to give the crowd of several hundred employees, patients and interested Sumter County residents gathered to say farewell to the hospital that served its city of 17,000 and the surrounding area.
"Most of us here today have lived long enough to know that the worst tragedies often contain seeds of hope, opportunity and renewal," Seagraves said. "We will emerge from this trial with a new, state-of-the-art community hospital that we otherwise might not have been able to build for decades to come, if ever."
The hospital cleared $98 million in an insurance settlement toward the $125 million cost of a new building and equipment, Seagraves said. With additional state and federal money, he anticipated a "funding gap" of $12 million to $15 million.
Since the tornado, more than $1 million in gifts have come in. And the community is showing its support in another way --- by voting in large numbers online for Sumter County Regional to be the recipient of a free MRI machine in a contest among more than 100 hospitals nationwide. Siemens Medical Solution will donate the machine to the hospital with the most votes.
A cheer went up when Seagraves told the crowd that Sumter Regional is about 83,000 votes ahead of its closest competitor.
Wednesday's ceremony felt like a combination festival and funeral. The Americus-Sumter County High School Singers, wearing black pants and red sweaters, did a jazzy version of "Silent Night." Children released balloons. And a drawing was held to strike the first blow on the building.
Dianne Hall, a Habitat for Humanity employee who bought 10 $5 tickets, won after owners of the first two tickets weren't present.
Hall, who said she was just trying to support the hospital's neonatal unit with her $50 dollars, climbed into the big yellow cab of the wrecking machine and aimed its arm at the steel frame of an awning.
"My legs were shaking," she said later. "Every time I hit it, the whole cab jumped."
There were moments of solemnity, too, as people contemplated the building where so many local lives had begun and ended.
Hospital Vice President Susie Fussell brought tears to more than a few eyes as she spoke about the hospital as a "grand old lady."
"We grieve for her as if she were a family member or friend," Fussell said.
While the ceremony was under way, workers were busy on what will be an interim hospital a few hundred yards away. Sumter Regional officials hope to take in the first patients there as early as mid-February.
The temporary hospital can't open soon enough for the doctors and nurses scattered around Americus who must drive to Montezuma, Cordele or Albany to perform serious procedures.
Nurses, physicians and therapists see more than 100 patients a day for laboratory work, therapy and urgent care in a modular unit in a parking lot. Those with serious problems have to be sent elsewhere.
"The hardest thing is not being able to keep our patients," said Stefani Atkins, the nurse who functioned as house supervisor on Wednesday. "We like to take care of our people and keep them in our community."
"We don't have a blood bank or any in-patient facilities," said Dr. Henry Teaford, a general and thoracic surgeon. "It's been very disruptive to everyone's practice.
"Something you take for granted suddenly is not here."
Teaford has been performing surgery in the hospitals in surrounding towns, then going back to check on patients. The trips can be taxing.
Dr. Wallace Mays gave up delivering babies in September because of the long trips to Albany and overnight hospital duty. He had considered confining his practice to gynecology but continued with obstetrics to help out after the tornado.
"After six months, I had to let the younger ones have it," the 67-year-old Mays said.
He still drives to Albany to care for gynecological patients who have to be hospitalized but no longer has to take a turn as obstetrician in residence.
Mays and Teaford are practicing medicine in trailers across the road from the hospital where their offices had been. Both also spent time in office space loaned to them by another physician before the modular units arrived.
"We were on top of each other," Mays' office manager Carol Jackson said. "We had four offices in one little room.
"You could hear through the walls. There was no privacy."
The hospital had been part of Jackson's life since she went there with a nurse's aide class when she was 16. She later worked at the facility full time as a nurse. Both her children and all four of her grandchildren were born there.
For her and many other patients, doctors, staff and family members, Wednesday was bittersweet.
"I'm ready for them to tear it down, but it will be sad," Jackson said. "It's time."It's time to take it down and start anew."