A Stark County judge has given Affinity Medical Center in Massillon at least a temporary lifeline.

Stark County Common Pleas Judge Chryssa Hartnett issued a temporary restraining order Friday requiring the Stark County hospital to stay open for 120 days.

A preliminary injunction hearing will be held on Feb. 1 for the judge to decide whether to continue the temporary order, which continues for 14 days or until a new order is issued.

The order was in response to a lawsuit filed by the city of Massillon, a group of Affinity doctors and others against Affinity’s owner to keep the hospital open.

Friday’s order also says Affinity’s management must cooperate with efforts by the city to create a plan for a new entity to buy the hospital or coordinate appropriate closure to transition patient care.

“This decision by Judge Hartnett recognizes and avoids the public health crisis that the sudden closing would have otherwise caused,” said Collin Wise, one of the attorneys representing the plaintiffs. “This decision by Judge Hartnett allows time for community leaders to continue evaluating whether possible alternative partners and options exist that present viable ways to keep the hospital open long term.”

Affinity’s corporate owner stunned the Stark County community earlier this month when it announced the hospital would cease taking new patients this Sunday , end clinical operations in February and be shuttered for good in March.

Tennessee-based Quorum said it failed to find a buyer for the hospital, which it said has lost money in each of the last six years.

However, officials from at least two area hospital systems — Aultman Health Foundation and the Cleveland Clinic — said they were unaware of Quorum’s plans to sell or close Affinity until this month’s announcement.

Government leaders, state lawmakers, local physicians, a nurses’ union representing RNs at the hospital and others in the community have been fighting plans to close the 156-bed acute-care facility, which has about 800 employees.

Massillon Mayor Kathy Catazaro-Perry, a registered nurse who worked at Affinity for 20 years, said the judge’s order was good news to stretch out Quorum’s “reckless” timeline.

“I know the importance of having a hospital in the community. Had this company come to us, we would have tried to help them. No one knew they were in trouble,” she said. “To abruptly announce you’re going to close the hospital, it’s reckless, it’s heartless. We are so very pleased with the injunction today.”

Catazaro-Perry said the community and doctors need time to plan instead of an abrupt closure. If there is new ownership, for example, it could take 60 to 90 days to get new credentials

There also is a medical residency program for training doctors and those students have been thrust into uncertainty, she said.

Dr. Mona Shay, chief of staff at Affinity, said she and other doctors, along with city officials, need time to figure out how to best take care of their patients.

“Is the hospital still marketable for a potential buyer to salvage and, if not, give us more time to establish what we’re going to do with the patients. Thirty days is not a reasonable time to figure out what to do with our patients,” said Shay, a gastro­enterologist who has been a physician in the area for 20 years.

Michelle Mahon, a registered nurse and national representative for the 250 Affinity nurses through the National Nurses United union, said news of the temporary restraining order was a pleasant surprise for all parties fighting to keep the hospital open. The union is not a party to the city’s lawsuit, but its lawyers assisted in some supportive work.

“This is obviously a very important first step” toward keeping the hospital open indefinitely, Mahon said.

“Unfortunately, Quorum left everybody with a timeline that turned this community on its head,” she said.

“There is some work to do even though the 120 days is there,” said Mahon, adding that she was proud of the nurses for rolling up their sleeves and fighting the closure.

“It’s just incredible to see people decide to take a stand. I know it’s not over yet, but the power of people is really unstoppable when they have the hope and faith they can achieve something,” she said.

Representatives of the union met with officials of Quorum on Thursday to discuss their demands. Mahon did not go into detail about what was discussed, but said “we are still in discussions with Quorum. The nurses were there with a demand, which is to keep this hospital open and be responsible for their obligations to this community.”

Wise said the hospital is needed, especially during a national flu epidemic that has hit Stark County.

“This decision by Judge Hartnett enables Affinity to continue to serve the needs of the community in facing those challenges,” he said.

A message for Quorum representatives was not returned. However, Affinity Chief Executive Officer John Walsh released this prepared statement to the Beacon Journal on Friday afternoon:

“The hospital was notified of Judge Chryssa Hartnett’s ruling earlier this morning. We have temporarily suspended wind down efforts for the 14-day period it requires and will continue operating all services for which we have appropriate staffing available.

“Our efforts to negotiate with the Mayor’s Office and other interested parties the last few days have not been productive and we share the court’s interest in identifying an equitable solution.

“Most importantly, we’d like to recognize and applaud our dedicated staff for their professionalism and constant focus on our patients during this uncertain time. They are the embodiment of the term ‘caregiver’ and we are grateful for the contributions of each nurse, physician, administrative and support employee and volunteer.”

When told of the statement, Catazaro-Perry said she was not surprised by Walsh’s reaction.

“We’re protecting our community,” she said. “It is very important for our residents.

“We are the second largest city in Stark County and we need a hospital in western Stark County.”

Medical writer Betty Lin-Fisher can be reached at 330-996-3724 or blinfisher@thebeaconjournal.com. Follow her @blinfisherABJ on Twitter or www.facebook.com/BettyLinFisherABJ and see all her stories at www.ohio.com/betty