FORT OGLETHORPE - Before a meeting that dealt with merging both hospitals, Erlanger Health System President and CEO Jim Brexler walked into applause, settled into his seat and tapped a Hutcheson Medical Center official on the shoulder.
"No pun intended, but we've got your back," Brexler said.
One more step, and he's right.
Trustees of the Hospital Authority of Walker, Dade and Catoosa Counties voted Wednesday night to enter a partnership that will keep the struggling North Georgia community hospital alive. The deal now bounces back to Erlanger's board of trustees, which also must approve it.
Before officials announced the biggest step yet toward unity, Hospital Authority trustees entered a closed session to discuss a potential partnership, locking out Erlanger representatives and 150 observers for more than two hours.
Nurses, doctors, technicians, their families and other supporters protested throughout, many toting signs - a nurse's baby held a "Save My Mommy's Job" placard - that asked Erlanger to "rescue" Hutcheson, which announced dozens of layoffs Monday morning.
"It was a case of chest pains," said a Hutcheson doctor who did not want to be named. "We didn't know if we'd be dead or alive in the morning."
They plastered signs against the meeting room's glass windows, taking them down after the session approached the 90-minute mark. Dozens watched the proceedings, and during a break, some hospital employees hounded the board members to get the contract done.
"I know where you live," a nurse said to Walker County Coordinator David Ashburn, a Hospital Authority trustee.
Wednesday's deal came two days after Hutcheson laid off 75 employees, some of whom had never worked anywhere else. Several workers were skittish that the first round of personnel cuts wasn't the last, reacting to a news release that focused on how the layoffs would "increase financial stability to the facility" - savings of $285,000 a month, or $3.4 million annually.
The 195-bed hospital, which has been losing $1 million a month and defaulted on a $35 million loan, has struggled to maintain the confidence of doctors who have referred their patients to Chattanooga hospitals.
Since late October, Hospital Authority members have been debating a potential agreement with Erlanger that would pump at least $20 million into the struggling North Georgia hospital to help it retain doctors and attract new patients.
On Sunday, three of the hospital's four oversight boards voted unanimously to accept a finalized contract.
But last week Hutcheson officials entertained six new proposals from hospital management firms - including Memorial Health Care System and Parkridge Medical Center - angering at least one Erlanger official who characterized the move as "a really bad April Fools' joke."
Wednesday night's agreement seemed to erase the ill will, with Brexler saying he was "very confident" the Erlanger board would approve the contract, which is still under a confidentiality agreement.
"We've been in limbo for so many months now," said Amy Head, a nurse at Hutcheson's advanced wound care unit. "We at least got some final answers. We've got jobs."