Thursday, October 14, 2010

The Roots of Hospitals

As years march on one gets to know the medical system much more intimately, be it as the patient or the patient’s “accompanying person.” If you’re by nature curious the process begins quite early. My first conscious notice of hospitals began when I was in college and daily passed a venerable institution known as Menorah Hospital in Kansas City on my way to classes—and realized for the first time that hospital names don’t all have to start with “St.”

Since coming to the Detroit metro area in 1989, we’ve had “intimate” relationships with six of the area's hospitals and, in process, the four great so-called “health systems” that, these days, serve as imperial umbrellas under which individual hospitals and many more specialized clinics shelter. The roots of the institutions—how they got going, what the underlying motive for their founding had been—has always interested us. Yesterday we’ve added yet another one when I got to undergo another “procedure” and Brigitte got to be “accompanying person” in her turn. The sample has now become large enough to show us clearly the roots of hospitals at least in our area. The odds are very high, however, that they are similar all over the country.

Of these six facilities, the oldest can trace its institutional origins all the way back to 1650. Of the six two (St. John and Bon Secours) were founded by orders of sisters, the underlying motive religious; one (Hutzel Women’s Hospital) was founded by seven women in the post-Civil War era to care for unwed mothers and children; one (Cottage Hospital) got its impetus from a neighborhood club reacting to the ravages of the 1918 influenza epidemic; and two (Beaumont and South Macomb) were started by local leaders stimulated by their areas’ distance from convenient health care. Tiny (10 bed) Cottage Hospital later came under the sway of the Henry Ford Health System—which also operates several other hospitals, including Henry Ford Hospital itself (802 beds); its root was Henry Ford’s own philanthropic impulse. Beaumont (1061 beds) acquired Bon Secours (289 beds) a couple of years ago. And St. John Providence Health System acquired South Macomb and renamed it St. John Macomb (376 beds). St. John’s itself has 804 beds, and Hutzel, part of the Detroit Medical Center, the area’s largest health system, has 61 beds. We’ve thus been treated by each of the area’s large health systems and most of the major hospitals.

Beaumont is the leading hospital in the metro area—and indeed, measured in annual admissions and surgeries performed—first in the nation. Every year it tends to be first in one or the other of these two categories. We got to know Beaumont because, as a research hospital, it had deeper insights into heart-beat irregularities than any other around here (the Women’s Heart Center). Beaumont began in 1955 when two civic groups, each trying to start a hospital—because their areas in Royal Oak and Bloomfield were too far from Detroit or Pontiac sites—joined forces and broke ground on a 55-acre farm donated by Asher and Harriet Parker in Royal Oak.

The closest major hospital to us is St. John; but for the heart-stent I received in their cardiac wing, I don’t suppose I would be writing this. The hospital began in 1952; the Sisters of St. Joseph, that particular branch founded in Kalamazoo in 1889, began fund-raising in 1947. The Sisters of St. Joseph, however, reach a ways back in time, to 1650, when they were founded in Le Puy, France by Jean-Pierre Médaille, a Jesuit. St. John Macomb, yesterday’s destination, began in 1966 as South Macomb Hospital, founded by community leaders in Warren, MI. It joined the St. John Health system in 1997.

Cottage Hospital is a mere two blocks away from where we live. I’ve had two cataract replacements surgeries there (to see you better) and Brigitte has been there for physical therapy contra spondylolysis. What’s that? All in good time. Old age has its mysteries; suffice it to say that it has to do with pain in the vertebrae. This lovely, small, but highly efficient hospital shows no signs of the horrid times in which it had been started, the influenza epidemic of 1918. In that year life expectancy in the United States suddenly plunged from 50.9 years in 1917 to 39.1 years in 1918—recovering again to 54.7 years in 1919.

Bon Secours (now known as Beaumont Grosse Pointe) became Brigitte’s favorite hospital. I can easily pass by there on my longer walks. She had been treated well there undergoing an operation on her toes; she bent her artificial knee there for the first time ever; it’s also our favorite emergency room (heart flutters for Brigitte, uncontrollable nose bleeding and falling off the ladder right onto the saw for me). These episodes always take a long time so that, by now, arriving there, we each have our favorite chair in the ER if we’re going as “accompanying persons.” Bon Secours began in 1979 at the initiative of the Sisters of Bon Secours. They had their start in Paris in 1824—and the convent that built the hospital began in 1909 in Detroit.

In some ways Hutzel is the most interesting of the hospitals on this list for us. It was founded in 1868 by seven women concerned with the welfare of other women—the unwed and their children. The hospital, originally the Women’s Hospital, was renamed in 1965 after a singular leader, and a nurse, Eleanore L. Hutzel. She served the hospital for 54 years and was also its trustee. Our linkage to this hospital was also very fortuitous. Brigitte has volunteered for several clinical trials over the decades—motivated by wishing to be of service and interest, generally, in medicine. She volunteered for a program administered from Hutzel. At her initial examination for purposes of participation, the doctors discovered a sizeable tumor and decided to remove it ASAP. In trying to help others save lives, Brigitte thus probably saved her own. I was the anxious accompanying person; I wandered the halls many an hour; and before we left, I knew the history of this remarkable institution very well indeed. It struck me then the extent to which women are associated with the foundations of health care institutions—and it matters not whether they are religious or lay. It’s the deeper impulses of caring that are behind it and bring solace and help to others.

By far the largest, most sophisticated, most resolutely modern of the hospitals above mentioned is Beaumont. It is generally very difficult to discover the histories of these hospitals on the web. They either neglect or hide their origins lest they offend some potential clients. Indeed, Beaumont’s was the most difficult to discover. This resolutely secular institution began in a tug of war between two groups of local leaders; but, fortunately, they joined hands. And it gave me a certain poignant pleasure to discover, in these researches, that just off the southeastern corner of the vast tract of land on which Beaumont now resides there stood then, and still stands today, at Woodward and 12 Mile Road, the National Shrine of the Little Flower, St. Thérèse of Lisieux.


  1. A lovely story of your local hospitals. We so often complain about health care in this country but what we are really complaining about is the odd, patch work used to finance our helath care. The care itself, in my happily limited experience thus far, has been awfully good.

    So, it is nice to see these care giving institutions looked at from an historic and reverent perspective!

    Three cheers for care givers.

  2. Nice distinction that you make here, Monique. You're absolutely right. Actual experience of the "system," especially in hospital settings, suggests competence, care, and order. Later you discover what an astonishingly high price they put on it...and wonder.