By Amy Goldstein
This town of the Tennessee Delta, seat of a county that once grew the most cotton east of the Mississippi, relied for decades on a little public hospital built during the Great Depression a few blocks from the courthouse square.
The red-brick building was knocked down in the 1970s when a for-profit chain came along and opened a modern stucco hospital on the north side of town. There, thousands of babies were born, pneumonias and failing hearts were treated and the longtime family doctor across the parking lot could wheel the sickest patients who arrived at his office right into the emergency room.
But these days, plywood boards are nailed up behind the hospital’s sliding glass entrances. Black paint is smudged across signs over its doorways. The nearest ER is more than a half-hour ambulance ride away.
On the morning of the hospital’s last day, Natalie Pinner drove to its parking lot, turned off her car and prayed.
Exactly a year earlier, she had been with her parents, who live next door along a country road that bears the family name. Her father and husband were grilling. She was in the kitchen with her mother, a sister and her son, Clayton. It was 5 p.m., and the 15-month-old was hungry, so she gave him some peanut butter on a cracker. He touched it to his lips, not even taking a bite, and red welts immediately popped out on his face. He started gasping for air.
Her sister, a nurse, knew they needed to get the little boy to the hospital, pronto. They piled in the car and, blaring the horn and flashing the lights as if it were an ambulance, raced the eight miles to Haywood Park in less than six minutes. Clayton’s eyes were rolled back as Pinner ran in with his limp body. The ER doctor said his airway was closed and his oxygen level so low that he might not survive. But shots of epinephrine gave the staff enough time to summon a medical helicopter that flies the most desperately ill or injured patients to Memphis, about 60 miles away.
Pinner, a part-time teacher, believes her son would have died if they’d had to drive to Jackson. When she heard the news about Haywood Park, she sent letters that begged the staff to keep it open. And when that failed, she marked the anniversary of Clayton’s emergency by praying for the safety of her town.