Saturday, November 16, 2002

Where we came from

In the early morning hours of January 1, 1963, a baby girl was born at Community Hospital, its first patient. Her birth in the brand new hospital was the result of more than ten years of community planning, including two false-starts.

I know something of this history because in 1985 Morris “Morey” Berman, an attorney and one of the founding board members asked me to lunch. I was one of the “next generation” he wanted to know about the “true story” of Community General Hospital. I was fascinated to hear his story then, and as CGH nears near its 40th anniversary, I found myself telling this story last week to doctors and to business leaders. It is a good time to remind ourselves where we come from.

In the 1950’s there were many aged hospitals in Syracuse, NY. Some of them dated from the Victorian era. The names of some hospitals are not heard anymore, so let me recall that Syracuse was home to A.E. Silverman Hospital, General Hospital of Syracuse, Midtown Hospital, Crouse Irving Hospital, Syracuse Memorial Hospital, Peoples Hospital, St. Joseph’s Hospital, St. Mary’s Hospital, and Good Shepherd Hospital.

There were two false-starts before CGH got underway. The first was a community planning report by a committee chaired by attorney Benjamin Shove (1952), the second by Carrier Corporation’s executive Cloud Wampler (1954). Both community leaders chaired studies that made recommendations. Each suggested improvements and consolidations in the city’s hospitals. Each came to nothing.

Then about 1956, Syracuse newspaper editor Alexander “Casey” Jones checked into a hospital on Irving Avenue for abdominal surgery. He found a roof leaking and one or more buckets to collect the water dripping in his room. He was happy and asked for a room change, but there were no other rooms available. So Casey Jones checked out of the hospital, took a train to Washington DC (his home town) and had surgery there. He returned to Syracuse a number of weeks later and sought out Syracuse Mayor Donald Mead. He asked the mayor for help in developing public consensus to replace antiquated hospital facilities.

Mayor Mead called for an investigation by the City Planning Commission, chaired by Morey Berman, my informant. The result was three days of public hearings at which more than 70 physicians, patients, and business people testified about the urgent need for improved hospital facilities. This generated the third community report that called for an entirely new 300-bed hospital to be constructed away from downtown in an area of “therapeutic green.” Several locations were suggested, and among them the 42 acres of reforested land owned by the County on Onondaga Hill. State Senator John Hughes authored special legislation in Albany which allowed County Executive John Mulroy to deed the land for $1.00 to a new Community Hospital.
How to build the new hospital? The Community Fund was created (now, the Community General Foundation). It was chaired by Leonard Markert Sr. who rented space downtown for the meetings and volunteers who traveled throughout the area seeking donations. Within a matter of months the Fund had pledges totaling more than $7 million, the largest fund raising campaign in Syracuse to that time (and for many years after).

Thousands of people participated in the campaign, many of them pledging small amounts to be deducted from their paychecks every week. The payments were received over several years from employees of General Electric, Carrier Corporation, Crouse Hinds Corporation, New Process Gear, and many from other companies. A US government grant of some $2 million was also obtained under the Hill-Burton Act.

The Community Fund looked for an administrator for its new hospital and hired John L. Brown, a New York native who had recently built a new hospital in Rockford, IL. Mr. Brown became CGH’s the first employee and first president. He relocated to Syracuse in 1958 and started the meetings, designs, contracts, and medical staff recruitment that resulted in the opening of a brand-new Community Hospital of Greater Syracuse in 1963. The first Medical Staff President was Irving Erschler, MD. In November 1964, the new Community Hospital merged with the 79-year old Syracuse General Hospital to form Community General Hospital.

As were the 1950’s, ours is certainly a dynamic time for Syracuse health care. The break-up of the Health Alliance in 2002 and Crouse Hospital’s affiliation talks with University Hospital show a health care environment that continues to change.

What would they say to us today, the people who worked so hard to create CGH during the 1950's?

They would tell us that CGH came about as the result of community planning, individual contributions, and hard work – and they would ask us to hold dear to our values, respecting patients, working closely with doctors, and continuing cooperative planning.

They would say, “Never stop trying” and “Keep getting better.”

They would say, “Take good care of the asset we worked hard to bring to this community.”

They would remind us that our place of “therapeutic green" continues as a vital part of the community’s heath care infrastructure.

We hear them.

This text was originally sent to the employees of Community General Hospital, Syracuse, NY, as one of a series of letters from the CEO. The text was subsequently posted on the CEO's blog, More than Medicine, started in June 2007.