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Staff Photo by Dan Henry / The Chattanooga Times Free Press- 12/4/15. Workers wrap the signage and board up the former Emergency Room entrance at Hutcheson Medical Center in Fort Oglethorpe, Ga., on Friday, December 4, 2015.
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Staff Photo by Dan Henry / The Chattanooga Times Free Press- 12/4/15. Workers wrap the signage and board up the former Emergency Room entrance at Hutcheson Medical Center in Fort Oglethorpe, Ga., on Friday, December 4, 2015.

This would not be a funeral, those who stayed decided.

Hutcheson Medical Center's employees knew Thursday night would be their last shifts at the 62-year-old hospital. And they also knew few patients would show up at their doors, as had been the case for weeks, ever since people in town heard that the hospital was due to close.

But the last employees did not want their final night to be washed out in tears. And so they put on their scrubs Thursday night, and they reported to their posts, and they held a party — the Last Supper, they called it.

"More like a wake," said Katrina Park, a nurse at Hutcheson for 14 years, who told her children she wants her death to be marked with the same dignity and celebration as her hospital's.

Though the deadline had loomed for weeks, though they heard over and over that Hutcheson would board up its doors this Friday, some employees still hoped for a savior. They heard lawyers were negotiating around the clock, were trying to broker a last-minute deal to let a company from California buy the hospital and keep it open.

But on Thursday evening, news leaked through Facebook pages. The deal wasn't going through, at least not before Friday. Hutcheson's bankruptcy and at least $82 million of debt were too strong of a force. Too many companies waiting for payments didn't like the deal that could have kept the hospital open.

The employees also heard there was still a chance of saving the place. Next week, a company could buy Hutcheson and open it up again. But for some of those who have stayed at Hutcheson since it filed for bankruptcy 13 months ago, one last story about one last offer to save the hospital felt far-fetched.

"The one day it's over; the next day there's hope," said Tara Hightower-Burns, a nurse at Hutcheson for 20 years. "The next day it's over. The next day they are working on a last-minute deal."

And so while they knew the hospital would close for good on Friday morning, the employees organized a potluck. They brought shrimp, ham, green beans, macaroni and cheese, mashed potatoes, salad, roast beef, deviled eggs and pies. They ate and hugged and cried. They posted pictures on Facebook.

Cynthia Jovel heard the old stories, the ones about the hospital before she arrived four years ago. Jovel had spent 20 years working in finance, helping people in California secure loans for their first homes. She liked that job; she felt like she was helping people.

Then the housing market crashed. She wanted to start over, so she came back to North Georgia, where her grandmother was raised. Her own mother, Cynthia Diane Pressnell, was born at Hutcheson in 1954. Jovel decided to become a nurse because it felt like a job immune to the forces of the economy.

Jovel's mother became sick, falling victim to a genetic disorder. In January 2012, she died. A month later, Jovel started working at Hutcheson.

"It kept me busy," she said. "It was divine intervention."

She needed the job for reasons beyond her bank account. In her grief, she wanted to be surrounded by people. The patients gave her an outlet, made her feel like she was changing lives, the way she once felt working through the details of a client's first home loan. And the staff at the small hospital made her feel welcome.

"They take you under their wings," she said. "They share knowledge with you. Cry with you. Laugh with you. When you don't know the answers, they help you find them."

But on Friday morning at 7, Jovel was back to work.

She knew what to expect.

And sure enough, a representative for the trustee of Hutcheson's bankruptcy case was there. So were some administrators. They said they were proud of the staff, that they appreciated the work they did even as the hospital sat dying — barring a miracle.

The employees were going to leave for the last time. And a crew would wrap plastic around Hutcheson's signs, push boards against the doors.

And former employees who had been on staff for decades, who were born at the hospital, would drive to the parking lot, just to mourn.

But before all of that happened, employees gathered around the radio Friday morning to transmit a message to the ambulances. A paramedic for Hutcheson waved a sheet of paper back and forth in front of her eyes, leaned into the mic.

"This will be our last call as Hutcheson," she said. "It has been an epic journey."

Contact staff writer Tyler Jett at tjett@timesfreepress.com or at 423-757-6476.

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