RUSSELL When the community said its collective goodbyes to Our Lady of Bellefonte on April 30, 2020, Dr. Jack Ditty sensed an unfillable void.
That emptiness lingers today, a year later. The grieving continues, as if a loved one departed the world way too soon. Several doctors, including Ditty, remain on St. Christopher Drive. They’re still practicing — caring for patients and continuously honing their crafts — but across the way on the hill, Our Lady sits vacant, stirring emotions to this day.
“I see Bellefonte Hospital every single day I go to work,” said Ditty, a 72-year-old dermatologist. “It’s a permanent loss you can’t recover from.”
Memories of the hospital glory days constantly fill his contemplative mind.
“Everybody was conscientiously working toward the same goal: To provide the best care for this community. It was a wonderful environment and morale,” he said.
Ditty acknowledged King’s Daughters Medical Center rising to the occasion, hiring numerous nurses, doctors and other positions, and even purchasing The Pavilion to transform it into a vaccine clinic. But there’s still nothing like Bellefonte, in his eyes, he said — and he knows he’s not alone.
When Laura Reese moved her practice to the OLBH campus from Southern Ohio Medical Center in 2002, it was a relief.
"At the time, SOMC was the only hospital down there and it was not pleasant to work where there was only one hospital," the orthopedic surgeon said. "Then, we also started seeing the drug issues and didn’t want to raise our children in that environment."
The closure of the hospital — which opened in 1954 — left Reese in shock and left her among the few doctors with offices remaining on the OLBH campus.
"It was absolutely horrifying on so many levels," she said. "The convenience of the hospital being there was gone. A couple of times we put people in wheelchairs and wheeled them across the street. You could send people over to radiology or even the pharmacy downstairs. If we happened to have gone through steroid shots and a shipment was late, we could go down to the pharmacy and get them.
"Or if we had the munchies in the afternoon and needed chocolate, we could go across the street," Reese said.
The loss was difficult emotionally.
"The first three or four weeks, I’d drive home and cry," she said.
It also can be scary.
"It’s creepy," she said, especially in the winter, when darkness sets in early. "Other than the family practice, we come out of there alone around 5:30 in the winter. No lights on. They say there’s security, but I say BS. Nobody’s ever seen one. We’re the only practice open on Fridays. When my girls and I leave, we’re the only cars in the parking lot. I mean, it’s eerie."
Reese said she’s never considered moving off campus for several reasons.
"The expense of moving is too much. I really don’t want to move," she said, noting 20 years ago, it cost $17,000 to move just her X-ray equipment.
"When you move a medical office, you have to reapply with all your carriers and you have to have a physical address," she said. "All of that is a nightmare. You have to slow down and stop working and then, you have to have a physical address to bill the insurance company. That’s why so many doctors sign with hospitals. You sign up with a hospital and your autonomy is gone, but they’ll take care of that kind of stuff for you."
She said the COVID-19 pandemic hitting around the time of the hospital closure was a "recipe for disaster," acting as a blow to loyal patients, the community — from a financial standpoint — and the medical community.
"It’s been a challenge to fit all of the Bellefonte positions and staff members into King’s Daughters, and they were doing a good job and then COVID hit on top of it," she said. "That smooth transition into KDMC had to take a back burner to a worldwide pandemic where people were dropping dead daily."
She has no plans to move, though.
"Ashland has been good to us and we love living in Ashland," Reese said. "I just think with business and industry losses and the hospital loss, and then the farce of Braidy, it’s been devastating."
Cardiologist Dr. Charles Rhodes moved to the area in 1979, taking a position as Associate Medical Director for Ashland Oil, and moving into the office he still occupies today. His office is located directly across the broad driveway from the main entrance of the now-closed OLBH, and he has seen many improvements and additions over the course of his 40 years there. Sadly, Dr. Rhodes also witnessed the end.
“It was a sleepy little hospital when I arrived in 1979,” Rhodes said. “We didn’t have CAT scans, ultrasounds, or any of those things back then. Cardiologist services just weren’t available there back in 1979.”
Rhodes said that it was inconvenient, because patients had to be sent to other hospitals for all those tests, etc. But Our Lady of Bellefonte eventually added its own services and continued to do an excellent job caring for their patients.
Rhodes said that for the first 35 years of his practice, he was actually working with both Bellefonte and King’s Daughters and was impressed with the growth at both hospitals. Going through his day-to-day practice, seeing patients from both hospitals for much of that time, Rhodes was completely unaware that there were plans to shut Bellefonte Hospital down.
There were rumors, of course, one of which even suggested that Mercy Health might buy out King’s Daughters, but there was no definitive information shared at the local level. The devastating news of the closure surprised him as much as anyone.
“It was certainly a blow to Greenup County, and the local cities such as Russell that lost that tax base,” Rhodes said. “And it also meant that people had to go further for acute medical care. And like most local community hospitals, Bellefonte had a loyal following who did not want to go anywhere else for treatment. Some people prefer the smaller hospitals and the more intimate care. And that’s what they came to Bellefonte to get.”
On a personal level, Rhodes said it was depressing to watch the lights go out.
“But I have been in the community so long that I knew I had alternatives,” he said. Rhodes said he contacted King’s Daughters (where he was still on the staff, but not active at that point) and changed his status to active. Rhodes said the mechanics of the change were easier on him than so many people who were forced to change hospitals and travel farther, but the emotional aspect was the same. Along with everyone else, Rhodes had lost a vital relationship that had lasted nearly 40 years.
Currently, the hospital is shuttered and empty, but Rhodes said he has heard there may be hope for the building to see use in the near future.
Addiction Recovery Care has indicated its desire to turn the hospital into a rehabilitation facility, but there is no fixed date on when that might happen.
Ditty would love to see ARC’s plan reach fruition. The company has estimated if it purchases the property from Bon Secours and establishes a treatment facility, it will create at least 250 jobs.
“I think it’s all a great idea,” Ditty said. “I hope either ARC or someone will make use of this facility.”
Said Rhodes: “Normally when a building like Bellefonte Hospital sits empty, it becomes an albatross around the neck of the owners and they are motivated to sell it.”
Sometimes, however, Rhodes said buildings such as that are eventually demolished before they become a hazard or an insurance risk.
“I would really hate to see that happen,” Rhodes said. “Because if someone wanted to make the investment for any necessary repairs, I think it would be a great asset to a new company.”
KDMC has done a great job of stepping in and providing services and hiring many of the people who lost their jobs due to the closure, Rhodes said, but preserving the memory of OLBH is essential, he said.
“The Highlands Museum, I believe, has made attempts to preserve some artifacts from Bellefonte,” Rhodes said. “And I have heard that the local Catholic Church, Holy Family, might be taking some of the benches, statues and other things. And I really hope that is the case.”
Rhodes said that, even though the hospital itself now no longer exists, he would very much like to see its legacy live on.
Today, Ditty, Rhodes, Reese, Ben O’Dell, Derek Jones, Carrie Connett, Larry Fields and dentist David Whitlock are among the remaining health care providers in the immediate OLBH area.
“There are still some extraordinary doctors here,” Ditty said.
Ditty reflected on the past year as he sat in his office on Wednesday afternoon.
“The anniversary of this time makes me sit here at my desk and think about all these people that meant so much to me and our community,” Ditty said. “People appreciated the care they got. I was a patient as well as a doctor. My sister was born here (at Bellefonte) on Aug. 4, 1954, a week after the hospital was open. My mom was the only patient, and nine nuns were the only employees. She could stay as long as she wanted, and she stayed for three weeks.”
Ditty’s mother is living with his family now. She’s 96.
“It would be interesting if we had the stats of how many people have been taken care of here at Bellefonte,” Ditty said. “It would be in the millions. All those people who have been impacted by this place, their hearts are broken that their hospital is not here today. It should be.”