50 Years of Healthcare: The evolution of Morgan Memorial hospital
By Kathryn Schiliro
inset photo by angelina bellebuono
vintage Photos courtesy of mmh • 2009 Satellite photo from Google maps
Fifty years ago Friday, Morgan Memorial officially opened its doors. The then state-of-the-art facility, built in "Canterbury Park on the outskirts of Madison," boasted 26 beds as well as the most up-to-date equipment: "an X-ray machine with an overhead photo time tube; complete air conditioning and heating controlled by the most up to date heat pump; a complete stainless steel kitchen with a heated food service to insure hot meals and a system whereby oxygen is pumped to patient rooms," according to a Dec. 31, 1959 Madisonian article, "Morgan County Opens New Memorial Hospital Friday."
The hospital cost $500,000, and was financed through the Hill-Burton Act, passed in 1946 as a response to President Truman's call for an improved hospital system. Federal, state and local dollars went in to constructing Morgan Memorial; in fact, Morgan County residents "voted a bond issue" to share in the financial responsibility of building the facility, according to the 1959 article.
Morgan Memorial was the first hospital owned by the county; a private hospital owned by Dr. Clyde McGeary, Sr. closed five years prior. The facility was one year in planning, and one year in construction. Scheduled to open in the fall of 1959, opening was delayed due to a steel workers strike earlier that year.
An open house was held on Dec. 27, 1959 and more than 1,000 people attended, according to the Madisonian article. One thing was clear: Morgan County residents were excited about the opening of the needed hospital, a facility the Atlanta Constitution called a "dream come true."
Dr. L.K. Lewis was responsible for admitting Morgan Memorial's first patient on New Year's Eve 1959.
A native of Greene County, Lewis moved to Morgan County three months prior to the opening. Establishing his family practice, Lewis also worked at Morgan Memorial as one of the hospital's six doctors.
With the exception of a doctor who functioned as a surgeon, Morgan Memorial's doctors were required to practice varying forms of medicine; specialization was nowhere near as prevalent as it is now. Lewis himself ran anesthesia during surgeries.
"The doctors did everything there was to do," Lewis said. "There were no emergency room physicians. Each doctor had to rotate emergency duty for a week."
Aside from acting as on-call emergency physicians, the doctors cared for the patients they themselves referred to the hospital (Morgan Memorial consisted, and still does, primarily of patients referred to the facility by local doctors who also work at the hospital), delivered babies, offered pre- and post-natal care all the while maintaining their own practices.
That diversity of work extended to the nursing staff as well.
"I worked 3 [p.m.] to 11 [p.m.], and there was me and two nurse's aides and an orderly on," former Morgan Memorial nurse Shirley Lancaster said. "Back then we had [to man] the emergency room, the operating room, the delivery room and the nursery. We did all of that; we did our own sterilizations, we did our own central supply...we gave medicine, did the charting."
The cost of health care in Morgan County 50 years ago? Lewis recalled an office visit cost $3; a house call, $5; complete obstetrics care was $75 while solely delivery cost $50; and circumcision, $10.
When Morgan Memorial opened, obstetrics care was one of the facility's major functions. The hospital included a delivery room and a nursery (now a nurses' station), and new mothers stayed in the hospital five or six days following childbirth.
"I had a large obstetrics practice," Lewis said. "I delivered probably 2,000 babies in this hospital."
"We had a lot of babies out there at that time," Lancaster said. "It was very different from what it is now."
Currently, Morgan Memorial doesn't offer obstetrics care; the service was abandoned in the late 1980s.
"Some things have changed, some haven't," Lewis, who retired in 2004, said.
When the hospital opened, local funeral homes ran the ambulance service, transporting patients to and from the hospital in hearses. Oftentimes, if a patient was being transferred to another hospital (usually in Atlanta or Augusta, Lewis said), a nurse, sometimes a doctor, would ride in the back of the vehicle with the patient.
Another change over time, most procedures now are considered out-patient; when Morgan Memorial opened its doors in the 1960s, most medicine practiced at the hospital was considered in-patient.
"I would average 10 to 12 patients at a time [in the hospital]," Lewis said.
Not just at Morgan Memorial, but in medicine overall, Lewis has noticed a shift in diagnostic technology. At present the hospital has the capability to do things like CT scans, MRIs and ultrasounds; when Morgan Memorial opened, the doctors had solely an X-ray machine to work with.
Though he retired five years ago, Lewis admits he can't quite leave medicine; he currently serves on the Morgan County Hospital Authority, the resident voice of experience.
"I sort of missed being connected with the hospital," Lewis said. "Medicine has been my life. This hospital has been my life."
Physically, Morgan Memorial has basically remained the same since its opening in 1960. The hospital underwent one major renovation as well as the addition of the Transitional Care Unit (TCU).
Lewis believes that financial stability and a new physical facility are needed, as are new specialists so that Morgan Memorial can be capable of offering more services to an ever-growing population.
"The town is growing, the county is growing," Lewis said. "We deserve a modern medical facility."
And a “modern medical facility” seems to be what Morgan Memorial’s current administration is aiming for.
Considering potential revenues and net revenues, potential expenses and the amount of debt that could be shouldered by the hospital, Morgan Memorial administration elected, earlier this year, to opt for a HUD-based program to fund the building of a new hospital, set to cost $35 million. Once feasibility studies are complete, representatives of Morgan Memorial will have to go to Washington D.C. to make a case for the funds. Provided that comes through, construction will begin.
Morgan Memorial CEO O.J. Booker is convinced that a new hospital alone won’t draw clientele to Morgan Memorial. First things first, Booker wants to keep the focus on patient care, despite any physical changes to the hospital that might be in the works.
“I think what people want is a building full of wonderful, spiritually driven people,” Booker said. “People want to know they can trust us, that they’re safe, that they know we know what we’re doing.”
Morgan Memorial is currently operating at 15 percent market share. An increase will only come if the hospital again gains the public’s trust, something hard to do especially when it comes to health care.
“We lay hands on people,” Booker said. “That’s a sacred trust…People are walking around in there, doing for other people. It’s just a precious, intimate thing.”
Fact of the matter, at least according to Booker, nothing – not even meals – happens at Morgan Memorial without a physician’s approval.
“Nothing happens in the hospital without doctors,” Booker said. “The hospital is the tool of the physician. Everything exists because physicians send us their work.”
At the same time, Morgan Memorial administration is working to maintain in-house development – concentrating on customer service, complaint resolution, risk management, ensuring everyone has a job description and is fulfilling their duties, and staying on top of what’s up-to-date as far as small, rural hospitals – to further increase the hospital’s appeal. It’s the people that make the hospital, according to Booker. In addition, hospital administration is studying the county, determining what health care services residents want and what can be brought to Morgan Memorial.
Both Booker and Director of Development and Public Relations Megan Morris highlight the relationship between the hospital and the county. According to Morris, Morgan Memorial is the number two or three employer in Morgan County – it employs 196 people – and has a multi-million dollar stake in the local economy. The hospital is a recruitment tool for attracting new industry and businesses to the county.
More importantly, it’s close.
“We hear that all the time, that [patients] couldn’t have made it an hour [to Athens] without being stabilized [at Morgan Memorial] first,” Morris said.
All of this said, what is Booker’s overarching goal for Morgan Memorial? To gain the trust, and therefore business, of Morgan County’s citizens.
“We need to have the opportunity to earn that business back,” Booker said.
He hopes to reach this goal not by constructing a new building, but through the people who work within it. Booker recalled advice he was given after coming on board as Morgan Memorial’s CEO: “Boy, you just take care of the patients, and the hospital will take care of itself.”
The official 50-year anniversary of the opening of Morgan Memorial is officially Jan. 1, 2010, but celebrations will take place throughout the year, according to Morris. Stay tuned.