Posts Tagged ‘Desert Center’

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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Kaiser Permanente nursing excellence: 75 years in the making

posted on June 2, 2011

By Ginny McPartland

Heritage writer

Last in a series

Kaiser Permanente's first nurse, Betty Runyen, at Desert Center in 1933.

The history of nursing at Kaiser Permanente actually begins in 1933 with Betty Runyen, Dr. Sidney Garfield’s sole nurse at the Desert Center Hospital near the construction site of the Los Angeles Aqueduct. Runyen, a young nursing graduate from Los Angeles, was just starting out and looking for adventure.

She was well aware of the early 20th century restrictions on her career options. Her mother had told her she could be a secretary, a teacher or a nurse. Nursing sounded the most intriguing. She became bored with her first job helping to birth babies, and sprung at the opportunity to help launch this pioneering hospital in the desert.

In 1933 nurses were not expected, or even allowed, to perform such a task as starting an IV (tube to introduce liquid intravenously). But Garfield, co-founder of Kaiser Permanente with Henry J. Kaiser, was forward thinking. He had taught Runyen how to start an IV, and the skill came in handy one day when she received an emergency call that one of the workers had succumbed to heat exhaustion. Dr. Garfield was not around, so she drove the ambulance to the job site and immediately inserted a saline IV. The patient quickly recovered.

Looking back from 2011, it seems absurd that nurses – usually women – weren’t entrusted with a task that is now considered routine. But this fact is indicative of how far nurses have come in 75 years in America and at Kaiser Permanente. A review of Kaiser Permanente’s history reflects the major strides the nursing community has made, bringing them to a place and time where their skills are as varied and as specialized and expert as physicians.

KP history reflects national trends

Nursing history is also punctuated with challenges related to the nurse’s evolving role on the medical care team and with major changes in technology, including medical equipment and use of computers to record medical notes.

In the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s care of patients shifted away from the hospital to outpatient settings. Advances in technology made it possible for surgery patients to spend less time in the hospital, and Medicare reimbursement policy revised in 1983 dictated shorter hospital stays. Despite a growing and aging population, the length of stay national average trended down from 8.5 days in 1968 to 6.4 in 1990 to 4.8 in 2005, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC).

Wartime Oakland nurses confer with pioneer KP physician Cecil Cutting.

These changes spawned the same day surgery program that allowed patients to have a procedure without staying overnight. The KP home care program was beefed up to provide surgery and hospitalization follow-up. Outpatient chronic condition management – for the benefit of the patient and the health plan – became ever more important to minimize the time patients had to spend in the hospital. Changes in maternity care also led to shorter hospital stays and an emphasis on family-centered perinatal practices.

New nursing specialties emerge

New categories of nursing have popped up throughout the decades. In the 1970s, the nurse practitioner role was developed to perform many of the tasks formerly done by the physicians. For example, the KP multiphasic or annual physical, initiated in the 1950s for the longshoremen’s union and expanded to the general membership, began to be administered by nurse practitioners working under supervision of physicians. Nurse practitioners were also tapped for well baby care and routine pediatrics visits as medical roles morphed during a critical shortage of medical manpower in America.

With KP’s emphasis on preventive care, its nurses have been called on to create outpatient education programs to help members manage their own health in partnership with their medical care team. Nurses have become specialized in outpatient management of chronic conditions such as heart disease and diabetes, and in providing home and hospice care. Specialized nursing roles have multiplied exponentially over the decades with today’s nurses trained in every aspect of medicine: surgery, intensive care, cardiac care, obstetrics, geriatrics, orthopedics, and the list goes on.

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