On a windy Sunday afternoon, Feb.10, 1952, Joanne Smith T stood beside her parents for the opening dedication of the Lee County Hospital. At 16 years old, Joanne had never given any thought to becoming a physician.
After the ceremony, she toured the 81-bed hospital. Her father, Winston Smith T Sr., chairman of the board, had given her several tours during construction. Everyone marveled at the modern, push-button elevators.
On the tour of the kitchen, visitors were shown the unusual dinnerware they were going to use. “Look, it won’t break,” Joanne remembers the tour guide saying as she threw a plate on the floor.
Joanne, now a doctor, smiles as she recalls how proud everyone was of the new facility “lightyears ahead of the old hospital.”
As East Alabama Medical Center celebrates its 60th anniversary, it can be said the facility is “light years” beyond the hospital that opened in 1952.
From the original Opelika Hospital, a small wooden building at the corner of 9th Street and 3rd Avenue, to the eight-story facility on Pepperell Parkway, EAMC has grown exponentially over the past six decades to become a regional, state-of-the-art facility.
The first baby born at Lee County Hospital was Deanna Lee Sharpe, the daughter of Don and Iva Dean Sharpe. Her parents named her “Lee” after the hospital. As a child, Deanna listened to the stories about her being the first baby born in the new hospital. She was delivered by Dr. James Walker, his nurse “and some people that looked like construction workers.” Deanna Holley is now the owner of Miss Deanna’s Daycare in Opelika.
As civic groups were donating funds and equipment, Mrs. L.W. Montgomery and members of the Pepperell Garden Club formed the Women’s Auxiliary. In the early years, productions of “The Follies” were presented to raise funds. In 1956, a Nursing Scholarship Fund was established.
The Auxiliary has continued to be a vital part of the hospital. The women volunteers were informally known as “pink ladies” because of the pink smocks they wore as part of their uniforms. However, in 1980, the
Auxiliary recruited their first male member, Forney Renfro. Male volunteers wear navy jackets. Now, the Auxiliary boasts 262 adult volunteers and 120 teenage volunteers.
The first specialist at the hospital was Dr. William Lazenby. Lazenby, a surgeon, had grown up in the Beauregard community and desired to return to his hometown. He started a solo practice in the Red Cross building in 1964.
Lazenby and Dr. Doyle Haynes opened the Surgical Clinic in 1968, and recruited other young physicians by providing a “no money down” office in their Medical Arts Center complex. After the core services were filled, others rapidly grew.
Among those early specialists were Dr. James Himmelwright, founder of Internal Medicine Associates; Dr. Robert Mardre, a radiologist; Dr. Steve Russell, an obstetrician/gynecologist; Don Curry, a pediatrician, and William Webb, who established the hospital’s Endoscopy Unit in 1975.
As the number of physicians grew, more hospital beds were needed. Lazenby, who was elected to the hospital board in 1968 and served 36 years, played a role in that area as well according to Carey Owen, EAMC’s vice president and chief planning officer.
Owen began working at the hospital in 1973 as a part-time print shop operator, but quickly rose through the ranks and was promoted to administration in 1977.
He is considered the hospital’s unofficial historian and has many relics from the hospital’s early days in his office. Among the most prominent items are chairs from the original boardroom table, and Owen’s desk
is the same one that Dean Byrd, the hospital’s first administrator, used. In Owen’s 39 years at EAMC, he has seen tremendous change, including the number of employees, which stood at 442 in 1974 and is now 2,703.
Owen says clinical technology and information technology have also changed the landscape at the 340-bed hospital. When he began working at the hospital, they had one computer that was 12-feet long and six-feet high and only did minor bookkeeping.
Over the years the technology on the clinical side has also changed, says Owen, who points to the da Vinci Robotic System as proof that healthcare today is vastly different from the hospital’s infancy.
On the information technology side of the ledger, EAMC has “updated its status” many times as well. Of course, there were no computers when the hospital opened in 1952, but in the 1970s and 1980s, employees used computers for registration, billing, radiology, pharmacy and in the lab. As recently as 2004, however, patient records largely consisted of hand-written paper charts. That’s when EAMC made a strong push for electronic medical records and now all patient care is tracked electronically. This has tremendously contributed to patient safety, coordination of care and better medical decision making.
With a computer record, it can be available to doctors, nurses and others with a security clearance. This even allows the physician to access a patient’s information from the office, if needed.
Owen says he is unsure if the community understands the complexity of running a hospital, which is highly regulated in all areas of government.
“Regardless if ‘Obamacare’ ends up being like it is or not,” says Owen, “there is no question that this country has to do something with the tremendous rise in healthcare costs.”
He compares the cost of supplies when the hospital opened to what items cost today. In 1952, they paid $2.28 for a cotton mattress and $12 for a desk. More recently, the hospital paid $1.2 million for the da
Vinci Robotic System and another $1 million or more for an MRI machine.
Owen adds while the hospital had difficult days in the early 1980s, EAMC is now on solid standing and is an A-rated hospital. “We have paid attention to being good stewards of the money. We really watch the budget process and honor it.”
Owen credits Terry Andrus for the success. Andrus, named president in January 1984, navigated the hospital through a period of cumbersome bond ratings and complex Medicare reimbursement procedures.
“He didn’t do it by himself,” says Owen. “He had the vision to put the right people in the right places to put together a team to be successful.”
“We have been so fortunate over the years with the hospital administrators, especially Terry Andrus,” says Joanne, who recently retired. “He is such a fine man and a fine administrator. He has been very foresighted and gets things done in the right way.”
On the 60th anniversary, Owen sees the biggest challenge as the future result of healthcare legislation. “We have some challenging times ahead of us.
“Looking back, there were fine employees in those days,” adds Owen, “but today with skill sets, training and education, we have a bright employee population who is ready to take on whatever we have in front of us.”