To all of those who joined us for the Future of Healthcare in Wrangell Ceremony Dec. 13th at the Nolan Center, thanks for celebrating with us. Below is a short piece I was asked to put together and read during the event, an attempt at summarizing Wrangell's healthcare history in just a couple, double-spaced pages. While it does not do our facilities and providers justice for nearly a century of serving our community, I would like to share it with my readers in hopes of painting a picture of forward progress in the ever changing world of healthcare.
“I can still picture opening the door to the elevator,” recalled retired RN Janet Buness. “Only a two-by-four separated you and the four-story elevator shaft. You would reach in and pull on a rope - that called the elevator to your floor.”
Buness is speaking of the elevator in Bishop Rowe Hospital, which was part of a fleet of hospitals Episcopal Bishop Peter Trimble Rowe founded across the state in the early 20th century. When the building opened in 1926, it was home to one of only two passenger elevators in Alaska.
The elevator provides a great illustration to the challenges every aging healthcare facility faces. The elevator was not wide enough to fit a gurney. Anytime a patient required transport between any of the four hospital service floors, the EMTs were called. Patients would be secured to a backboard, then slid into the elevator at a 45-degree angle in order to make the trip up or down.
Buness recalls the somewhat-primitive nature of healthcare in Wrangell’s first hospital. There was no such thing as disposables, as staff spent countless hours re-powdering gloves, sharpening needles, and washing drapes. Physicians and nurses were providing care with no oxygen in the walls, no suction machines, no cardiac monitors, and very few bathrooms.
Just as Buness was wrapping up her first year of service in Wrangell, Bishop Rowe gave way to Wrangell General Hospital, now known as Wrangell Medical Center, where she would serve for an additional 47 years. “It was state of the art,” stated Buness. “Clean, modern, and bright. I can’t speak for all staff, but myself and those I worked with were happy to be in the new building. No tears were shed when leaving Bishop Rowe.”
Wrangell General Hospital was open for business in July of 1968. In 1975, construction was complete on the Long Term Care addition, expanding a service that has become synonymous with healthcare at Wrangell Medical Center. After a modular addition of the current Emergency Room and support areas in 1989, the current hospital facility as we know it had taken shape. It wasn’t long after that last remodel when Administration began kicking the tires on a potential new facility.
Former CFO Olinda White describes attempts at securing a new hospital back in 1996. Then CEO Brian Gilbert had discussions with architects about a potential new facility, or possible addition to the current WMC facility. Once the price tags started showing rearing their ugly heads, discussions were quickly tabled. It became clear that, in order to ensure our providers had yet another state of the art campus, the financial picture for WMC needed to be easier on the eyes. After moves to receive some exceptional relief from the State, and being re-classified as a Critical Access Hospital, new reimbursement rates soon allowed for the new hospital conversation to be rekindled.
By 2009, WMC was deep down the road towards a new building. The bank account was flush. The state and federal financial assistance was there for construction. Big-ticket, maintenance items throughout the hospital had exceeded their usable life. At this point, WMC had been in service about as long as its predecessor, Bishop Rowe. It was time.
Well, we all know how that turned out. Current WMC staff are still crestfallen at the thought of labeling office furniture and equipment, specifying items moving to the new hospital and those to be surplused. Interior paint colors and carpet patterns were picked out. It was a done deal, in their minds. The process truly was in the 11th hour when it fell apart.
White’s reaction to the gut-punch that was the new hospital no longer being on the table was the reaction you may come to expect in working in the healthcare field. “It was heartbreaking,” she said, “but all you can do is get back to work and move on.”
And move on we did. WMC continued to provide a level of service that most communities of Wrangell’s size can only dream of offering, even as the once-flush bank account shriveled in efforts to cover day-to-day operations. That sustained level of service, combined with an unappealing future in terms of the state healthcare budget, led us here. It led SEARHC to us.
On October 2nd, when the vast majority of voters at the polls shaded in that oval on the yes side of Prop 1, the future of healthcare in Wrangell became clear. No longer would the Assembly have to hear about the shrinking number of days of cash on hand. Fingers crossed in hopes of willing the 50-year-old structure and utilities to continue cheating death could finally be un-crossed. Anxiety from imagining Wrangell as a hospital-less community was now relieved. WMC staff will continue serving. SEARHC will open doors on a new hospital - only the third in our community’s history - in just two, short years.
As we saw with the closing of Bishop Rowe, and as we will see again when the lights are turned off at Wrangell Medical Center, hospitals come and go. They’re replaceable. It may cost tens of millions of dollars and many hours of sleep for those parties involved, but they’re replaceable. The value lies in the staff and the level of care they provide. It is the staff who led SEARHC to believe Wrangell is worth the investment.
It’s unfair to think that in five minutes, one could summarize more than 90 years of healthcare in Wrangell. The highs, the lows. The struggles, the triumphs. The countless staff members who have left a lasting impression on not only the hospital, but our community. Forgive me if we’ve left out a name that was crucial in our survival, or a story that outlines a hurdle we leapt to get to this point. The important part is that we’re here, and our hospital is not going anywhere.