For nearly 90 years, St. Mary’s has been meeting the healthcare needs of the community.
A hospital never sleeps. The demanding business of caring for the sick and the injured goes on 24 hours a day, seven days a week at St. Mary's Medical Center. But the rhythm of that care slows in the late night and early morning, when the day's visitors are gone and the center is left to its trained staff and those over whom they so carefully keep watch.
The hours tick slowly by. Finally, dawn nears. Outside, the first rays of sun soon appear, and inside, the medical center's public address system crackles to life: "Good morning and welcome to St. Mary's Medical Center. May we pause for a few moments of prayer and reflection as we begin our day together.
"God, thank you for the gift of this day and for all the gifts that we will share with each other. May the gifts of healing, of hospitality and hope be in this place. We ask for your peace for all our patients and family. Through your love may the joy of life be given to all who come here. ... Amen."
It's the beginning of another day at St. Mary's Medical Center. Another day that will be filled with tears and laughter, with love and concern, with compassion and caring. Especially caring.
It’s been that way for almost 89 years, since the Pallottine Missionary Sisters provided the foundation for what is today the largest tertiary-care hospital in our Tri-State region and Cabell County's largest private employer.
Inspired by founder St. Vincent Pallotti's motto, "The Love of Christ Impels Us," the Pallottines came to America from Germany in 1912. Four Sisters left from Bremerhaven, bound for the United States. They had booked passage on the Titanic. Fortunately for them, one of the Sister's travel documents were not in order, so they were forced to delay their trip. The ill-fated Titanic sailed into history without them. The Sisters took another ship.
As if one brush with disaster wasn't enough, another soon unfolded. Upon their arrival in America, the Sisters were scheduled to travel by train to Stella Niagara, New York, where they were to study English under the Sisters of St. Francis. Before boarding the train, they received a telegram from the Mother Superior of the Franciscans, asking them to delay their journey until she could join them. Therefore, the train left without them. Before it reached Stella Niagara it wrecked, killing many of its passengers. Again, the Sisters were spared.
On August 12, 1912, the Sisters left Stella Niagara for Richwood, West Virginia, where they opened a school and, the next year, a hospital. In 1921, they opened a second West Virginia hospital, in Buckhannon. And in 1924, Bishop John J. Swint of Wheeling invited the Sisters to open a hospital in Huntington.
To house the new hospital, the Sisters purchased two buildings that had been home to a failed preparatory school. The larger of the two became the hospital itself, while the second, a gymnasium, became the Sisters' convent. Both buildings were in disrepair. Because funds were limited, the Sisters did much of the repair work themselves, aided by volunteers from St. Joseph's Parish. Finances were so tight it's said that holes in some of the cooking pots in the kitchen were patched with bread dough. On November 6, 1924, the Sisters were ready to open their 35-bed hospital and place it under the protection of Mary, the Mother of God.
The next day, St. Mary's admitted its first patient, a charity case, the beginning of the hospital's long tradition of caring for the poor.
In the hospital's earliest years, the Sisters did all the work. They nursed the sick and injured, cooked, served, washed, ironed, cleaned, fired the clunky coal furnace and even grew their own fruits and vegetables.
As the hospital's number of patients continued to grow, both the Sisters and the doctors realized the nursing staff had to be increased. Hence the idea of a School of Nursing was conceived and in due course the new school was chartered by the State of West Virginia on May 26, 1926. In June of 1927, St. Mary's accepted its first intern, Dr. Harry E. Beard, a graduate of the Medical College of Virginia.
When the Pallottine Sisters arrived in Huntington, the city had nearly a dozen hospitals, but all were privately owned, most were small (some had only 10 or 12 beds) and none were, in any sense of the word, a community hospital. Frustrated doctors frequently had difficulty finding hospital accommodations for their patients. Little wonder that the fledgling St. Mary's quickly became a busy place. After only 14 months of operation, the new hospital had 59 physicians on staff and many of those physicians were urging the Sisters to expand.
And so in 1930, a new three-story addition was constructed, increasing the hospital's capacity to 110 beds. Expansion was to become a continuing theme in the hospital's history.
In 1931, St. Mary's took a major step forward when it received the formal approval of the American College of Surgeons. In 1933, the hospital's Crippled Children's Clinic opened.
Soon, the shortage of beds again was acute, and despite the twin ravages of the Great Depression and the 1937 flood that inundated much of Huntington, St. Mary's raised $200,000 in contributions from the community to finance the construction of a new wing. The wing was dedicated on November 9, 1938. It had been a busy 14 years since the Sisters had come to Huntington and opened a hospital.
Plunged into war by the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, the nation found itself in urgent need of trained nurses, and so St. Mary's expanded enrollment at its School of Nursing.
By war's end, the number of student nurses had increased so dramatically that the hospital was hard-pressed to accommodate them. A decision was made that the school needed a new, modern building, and that's what was dedicated October 14, 1947.
Even before then, however, in 1946 the hospital had successfully completed its most ambitious project to date: construction of the five-story South Wing and the addition of fourth and fifth floors to the 1930 addition. On November 6, 1949, St. Mary's marked its 25th anniversary with an open house and a Pontifical High Mass of Thanksgiving. From its original 35 beds, St. Mary's had grown to 350. However, the hospital's most exciting period of growth was still to come.
By 1950, overcrowding forced the addition of a sixth floor to the wings built in 1938 and 1945. And in 1958, St. Mary's broke ground for yet another addition. The former prep school building that had housed the hospital's first patients was demolished to make way for a modern six-story East Wing. The 1958 project also included construction of a new convent. The former gymnasium that had been home to the Sisters since 1924 was demolished and the Sisters moved into new quarters on Christmas Eve, 1959.
On March 21, 1971, St. Mary's broke ground on the hospital's "sixth major expansion" since it opened its doors in 1924. And on November 24, 1974, St. Mary's celebrated its 50th anniversary by dedicating its new addition.
Open heart surgery became a reality in the Tri-State on September 24, 1979, when the first open heart operation was performed in St. Mary's new $2.35 million heart unit. No longer would patients living in the Huntington area have to travel to Cleveland or Lexington for a coronary bypass or to correct defective heart valves.
St. Mary's recognized the need to make coming to the hospital easier for those who simply need testing or same-day surgical procedures. And on July 18, 1995, St. Mary's took a big step in that direction when it broke ground for a new outpatient center.
In December 1995, cancer care in the Tri-State took a major step forward with the announcement that St. Mary's was affiliating with the Duke Comprehensive Cancer Center, one of the national leaders in the field. By July 1997, the outpatient facility was completed and opened its doors providing the community with outpatient surgical and diagnostic services as well as additional physician offices.
The Breast Center at St. Mary's was dedicated on October 14, 1997. The Center is home to state-of-the-art breast imaging equipment.
On August 1, 1999, St. Mary's dedicated its new Radiation Oncology Center, part of a $5 million renovation to the radiation therapy department. The department houses two state-of-the-art, triple energy linear accelerators that significantly improve the hospital's ability to perform the latest in radiation therapy.
November 6, 1999 marked the 75th Anniversary of St. Mary's Hospital. The amazing transformation from a humble 35-bed hospital to the second-largest facility in the state was celebrated by the entire Tri-State community.
The Joslin Diabetes Center of Boston, an international leader in diagnosing and treating diabetes, opened a center at St. Mary's in January 2000. Major League Baseball player Rick Reed was on hand for the dedication of the center and spoke to the staff before making a donation to the hospital. The St. Mary's and Joslin partnership created the only facility in West Virginia offering a unique, comprehensive program for diabetes care.
In August 2002, St. Mary's Board of Directors and the Pallottine Missionary Sisters agreed that the hospital would be renamed St. Mary's Medical Center. The new name reflects the facility's scope of services, outreach and education to the community, level of diagnostic capabilities and advanced technologies. Despite the new name, St. Mary's remains committed to its mission of being the hallmark of compassion and quality care in the region.
Today, St. Mary's Medical Center has evolved from its humble beginnings into a healthcare giant that serves patients drawn, not just from Huntington and the area immediately around it, but from 20 counties in three states. And certainly much has changed over the medical center's long history.
But one thing hasn't changed. St. Mary's remains, in the words of a morning prayer, a place "of healing, of hospitality and of hope."
JAMES E. CASTO is associate editor of The Herald-Dispatch and the author of "A Place Like No Other - A 75-Year History of St. Mary's Hospital."