Posts Tagged ‘Betty Runyen RN’

Thieves abscond with bronze historical marker at Desert Center

posted on August 8, 2013

By Steve Gilford, Senior Consulting Historian

Southern California physicians to replace plaque dedicated in 1992 to commemorate Sidney Garfield’s Contractors General Hospital

Plaque placed in 1992 commemorating Sidney Garfield MD's desert hospital. Recently, thieves pried the 110-pound marker from the boulder presumably to turn the bronze into cash.

Plaque placed in 1992 commemorating Sidney Garfield MD’s desert hospital. Recently, thieves pried the 110-pound marker from the boulder, probably planning to turn the bronze into cash.

I’ve recently returned from Southern California where I assessed the damage vandals and thieves wreaked to the historical marker near the site of Dr. Sidney Garfield’s 1933-built Contractors General Hospital.

This location is significant because it’s where Kaiser Permanente’s pioneer physician first discovered how prepaid, preventive medicine could make health care more affordable.

The 110-pound bronze plaque, placed at the historical site 21 years ago, has been pried off its base and stolen, presumably for the value of the metal. This is another occurrence of the national trend of thieves dismantling historical markers to turn bronze to cash.

I traveled to the desert not only to evaluate the loss but also to arrange for a replacement plaque. My journey was successful: I found a safe location for a new plaque and an enthusiastic benefactor to pay the bill.

In 100-plus-degree heat that is usual for the area, I surveyed nearby Chiriaco Summit, an active way station for desert travelers, with Margit Chiriaco Rusche, the daughter of founders Joe and Ruth Chiriaco. We found an appropriate site for a new plaque in an island of green vegetation which many visitors pass.

Locating historic hospital site

For me, this mission was personal. Twenty-seven years ago, I uncovered the hospital site where, in 1933, Kaiser Permanente’s founding physician had started his prepaid health plan for workers on the Colorado River Aqueduct Project.

Google Map of the location of the Contractors General Hospital in 1933

Google Map shows the vicinity of where the Contractors General Hospital stood in 1933.

In 1986, Stanley Ragsdale, self-described “desert rat” and owner of Desert Center in Southern California, accompanied me on an expedition to find the long lost site of Garfield’s hospital, six miles west of the little town on Interstate 10.

As we approached the area, we could make out the foundation outlines, which were all that remained of the facility abandoned in the late 1930s.  As someone with experience in archeological digs, I headed for the nearby garbage pit, in which I found medical artifacts that positively identified the site.

With this information and other research, I prepared an application and supporting materials for the site’s designation as a historical landmark. The California State Historical Commission unanimously authorized an official plaque recognizing the importance of the tiny hospital to American medicine.

In a 1986 ceremony, Sally Garfield Blackman, Dr. Garfield’s elder sister, unveiled the bronze plaque attached to a boulder near the spot where the once bustling hospital had stood.

Southern California physicians sponsor replacement plaque

Over the past two decades, the dusty town of Desert Center, with its two-block long main street, has fallen on hard times. The restaurant, gas station, general store, and ice cream stand are all gone. With no one around the abandoned town, the plaque was easy pickings for thieves, and several weeks ago they struck.

Raymond Kay, MD, friend of Garfield and early leader of the Southern California Permanente Medical Group, playing ping pong on the hospital site.

Raymond Kay, MD, friend of Garfield and early leader of the Southern California Permanente Medical Group, playing ping pong on the hospital site.

I mentioned the loss to Paul Bernstein, MD, San Diego area medical director for the Southern California Permanente Medical Group.  Bernstein (Twitter: @sdthinkbig), personally interested in the history of Contractors General, is as chagrined as I am by the marker’s disappearance.

He approached the Southern California Permanente Medical Group, and they have agreed to replace the plaque as part of SCPMG’s 60th anniversary celebration in September. This year also marks the 80th anniversary of the hospital’s founding.

Chiriaco motorist stop fitting site for new historic marker

Joe and Ruth Chiriaco founded their first store the same year that Dr. Garfield opened Contractors General Hospital; they knew the hospital and Dr. Garfield well.

Ruth Chiriaco, a registered nurse, had worked in nearby Indio with Betty Runyen, Dr. Garfield’s first nurse. Having met the Chiriacos in my previous research, I was pretty sure the family would be amenable to putting the new plaque near their business that includes a store, restaurant and gas station.

This fall, Dr. Garfield’s favorite nephew and closest living relative, Dr. Robert Blackman, and Blackman’s two sons will participate in the dedication, as will nurse Betty Runyen’s three children. Betty’s daughter Susan, a nurse with Kaiser Permanente in Hawaii, has just finished a novel based on her mother’s life at Contractors General Hospital. 

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Sidney Garfield, MD: Hands-on work site safety practitioner – or not?

posted on February 26, 2013

By Lincoln Cushing, Heritage writer

This illustration appeared in the Grand Coulee Dam newsletter The Columbian, May, 1940. This newsletter was distributed to workers at the Columbia Basin and Grand Coulee Dam sites from 1938-1941.

The image of Kaiser Permanente founding physician Sidney R. Garfield as a hammer-wielding workplace safety diehard has been passed down through the decades from his early days as a desert doctor. But is the legend true? Did Garfield really charge out into the dust and dirt himself and pound down rusty nails, shore up tunnels to prevent rock showers, and insist workers wear hard hats?

This story of Dr. Garfield’s passionate preventive practice on the Colorado River Aqueduct project has endured for eight decades, since about 1933. The oft-told tale conveys the young doctor’s commitment to worker safety and preventive care once he instituted the unconventional prepaid model of health care that saved his little hospital from extinction.

Garfield was certainly committed, but his allegedly active role in the cleanup of aqueduct work sites is a stretch of the imagination. And he was not alone in promoting workplace safety.

Fact or fiction?

The story has sometimes been presented as fact:

“There was a funny little story that Dr. Garfield, on the first day in which prepayment began in the desert, got up early in the morning with his hammer, and went around the worksite pounding down nails. . . The notion is that if you can keep the patients healthy, then it’s a good thing not only for the patient, but it’s a good thing, financially, for the program.” [i]

Sometimes it’s told as legend:

“There (in the Mojave Desert) he also discovered the importance of preventive medicine, and he strove to remove potential health hazards for the workers – although it is only legend that Garfield would go to the construction sites and pound down any protruding nails himself.”[ii]

And at least once the story has been cited in a novel about the desert doctor’s operations, where a fictional Dr. Sidney Garfield speaks to a fictional nurse:

“I picked up another nail. ‘Look at all these dirty nails. Just lying around, waiting for someone to step on them and end up with a puncture wound, tetanus, or worse.’ ”[iii]

In his own words

When we examine the historical record and let the doctor speak for himself, as in this circa 1934 quote in which he describes a disquiet of conscience from collecting fees from illness and injury, we see his true role.

Betty Runyen presents a safety award hard hat to a Colorado Aqueduct project construction supervisor, 1934.

“We had been anxious to have sick men or injured men come into the hospital because that meant income and that we would continue to exist. . . It was embarrassing to me to want people to get hurt. So we started to do safety engineering. . . We would get a bunch of nail punctures from a job and we would go out there and get them to clean up the nails. Or we would get a lot of head injuries . . . and we would get them to shore up the tunnels better.”[iv]

Garfield’s commitment to worker safety was genuine, but it was his nurse, Betty Runyen, RN, who actually went to the work sites to speak to the importance of taking salt tablets and drinking water to avoid sunstroke, and of donning gloves to prevent the spread of impetigo from pick axes and shovels. The competent nurse was also the visage of an angel in those hostile environs with her blonde curls and pretty smile.

Water district’s safety efforts

It should also be noted that Garfield and Runyen had help as well. The Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, the builder of the aqueduct, and Workmen’s Compensation insurance companies all placed their own safety engineers in the field to remedy dangerous job situations.

Tunnel rescue squad serving the Colorado River Aqueduct Project workers, circa 1933. Photo from Colorado River Aqueduct project manual, Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, 1937.

The 1937 Colorado River Aqueduct project manual describes their role thusly: “It is the duty of the safety engineer and members of his organization to visit all work on the aqueduct at frequent intervals to see that the work is being carried on in accordance with established safety rules, to offer advice and instructions to those in charge of construction operations, and to assist in the elimination of dangerous operations and equipment.

“In addition, each division engineer is charged with the responsibility of reducing accidents to the minimum. Special safety meetings are held at various points along the aqueduct at frequent intervals and a regular plan of safety education is maintained.”[v]

All of these efforts apparently had an impact – accident frequencies were reduced to a point well below the average rate experienced in that class of construction during that period.

In the desert years (1933-1938), Garfield did not wield a hammer or gather stray nails at the job site. But it is still fair to say that he overturned the conventional wisdom that a physician must derive his income from illness and injury. In the desert he realized the incentive to keep people well and on the job. Thereafter, preventive care became paramount, first in his imagination, then in reality when he partnered a few years later with Henry J. Kaiser at Grand Coulee Dam project in Washington State.

 



[i] Bruce Sams interview, “Kaiser Permanente Medical Care Oral History Project II, Year 2 Theme:
Kaiser Permanente Core Values,” conducted by Martin Meeker in 2007, Regional Oral History Office, The Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley, 2007.[ii] Can Physicians Manage the Quality and Costs of Health Care? The Story of The Permanente Medical Group, by John G Smillie, MD; book review by Morris F. Collen, MD, The Permanente Journal, Summer 2001
[iii] Courage to Heal – A Novel by Paul Bernstein, MD, 2008
[iv] The Story of Sidney R. Garfield – The Visionary Who Turned Sick Care into Health Care,
by Tom Debley, the Permanente Press, 2009, p. 21
[v] Colorado River Aqueduct project manual, Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, 1937.

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