Santa Paula Hospital, which has the only emergency room in the Santa Clara Valley, opened for business Thursday morning after being shuttered for more than two years -- and it didn't take long for the first patients to show up.
Ronald Van Es, 49, had the distinction of being the first person admitted into the ER. He came in before 10 a.m. complaining of pain in his lower back and right leg that started Wednesday night.
"Living in Fillmore, this was a lot more convenient than driving to Ventura," said Van Es, speaking from a gurney surrounded by reporters and photographers. "Being this is the first day and I'm one of the first patients, I'm getting all this great care."
Local politicians were pleased to restore a trauma-care facility to the 50,000 people living along California 126, from eastern Ventura to the Los Angeles County line.
"It's wonderful. It's very rewarding to have such a successful conclusion to this matter," said Ventura County Supervisor Kathy Long, whose district includes the once privately owned hilltop hospital, which was forced to close for financial reasons at the end of 2003.
"This is one of very few instances in the nation where a community has been able to reopen a small, rural hospital."
Long said the effort was accomplished in record time.
The Ventura County Health Care Agency bought the hospital for $2.75 million last September, then spent $4.5 million repairing and upgrading the 49-bed facility.
After the newly refurbished hospital filed its final paperwork to state regulators on June 8, local officials lobbied the state to expedite the inspection required for the hospital to reopen. The state gave its final approval Wednesday.
"We certainly realized the enthusiasm this community had for the hospital reopening," said Sabrina Lockhart, a spokeswoman for Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. She said it was "great news" that the community and the state Department of Health Services had worked together "to ensure this hospital could open its doors."
Originally opened in 1963 as Santa Paula Memorial Hospital, the facility fell on hard times in the 1990s, and mounting debts eventually forced it into bankruptcy.
The 10.5-acre hospital now is a campus of the Ventura County Medical Center, which picked up about 200 extra emergency-room visits each month after the closure, said Michael Powers, the county health agency's director.
Santa Paula Mayor Rick Cook couldn't resist driving through the parking lot before the hospital officially opened at 7 a.m. "It looks great," he said. "It looks just as good, if not better, than it did when it was brand new."
The 56-year-old native of Santa Paula said that he had knee surgery at the hospital when he was in high school and that several members of his family have been treated there over the years.
But when he had a kidney stone last month, he stayed home in pain rather than face what he thought would be a long wait at the main medical center, 20 minutes away in Ventura.
"Not only will Santa Paula residents benefit, but so will people throughout the entire valley," Cook said of having the local hospital open again. "It will be so much more convenient."
Salesman David Howard, 46, a Santa Paula resident for nine years, was the hospital's first visitor Thursday. He wasn't sure it was open yet but thought he would stop by rather than drive to Community Memorial Hospital in Ventura for the chest X-rays needed before surgery later this month.
Howard was seen immediately. "It saved me time. That's never happened before," he said.
As for Van Es, emergency room director Dr. Michelle Daucett said the prognosis was good and sent him home with instructions to rest and take pain relievers.
Daucett had worked at Santa Paula Memorial for seven years before it closed. She worked the last ER shift before it shut down.
"It was a very emotional time for me. It was the first time since I was 15 years old that I didn't have a job," she said.
Daucett and her medical partners opened an urgent care clinic in town to serve patients affected by the closure.
But when the self-proclaimed "adrenaline junkie" got the call last fall asking her to again assume control of the hospital's ER, Daucett said she never hesitated.
For now, the hospital is operating with about half of the 145-person full-time staff it expects to need once it is fully operational.
Daucett said she expected the ER to be seeing an average of 40 patients a day within a month.