Off North Road

A personal hospital perspective

By Russell Hoxsie - July 12, 2007

A stranger walking up Hospital Road in Oak Bluffs last week must have thought he approached a closed institution, a down-at-the-heels old summer hotel perhaps. The road sign was the only indication on a late Sunday afternoon that he was looking at a hospital. The parking lot was empty of cars and a high steel-mesh fence seemed to surround the property. Of course most of us instantly would recognize the familiar cottage face of the Martha's Vineyard Hospital which has stood on the site since the mid-1920s. Now, something important and marvelous has been taking place, indeed.

The Times, July 5, devoted an entire section to "Martha's Vineyard Hospital Annual Report 2007," in which Timothy J. Walsh, CEO, and John P. Ferguson, President, thanked the Island community, which raised an incredible $42 million dollars to build a brand-new hospital. The fence simply blocked off the perimeters of the work area for the razing of old and erecting anew to commence this fall. I am brought back in time to my first arrival at the old cottage hospital on a gorgeous June day in 1955, a Sunday when the Vineyard doctors arranged a meeting to encourage me to join them. The six general practitioners seemed frantic to attract another doctor. They were worn out with the rush of summer season; they hadn't interviewed a new candidate since the end of WW II. Their only partial time off was Sunday when one of the six served as emergency physician for the Island. However, most doctors made rounds on Sunday and attended their own patients who came in to the hospital. A single resident surgeon was available for emergency surgery or the surgical case was sent by boat to Woods Hole, then ambulance or car to another hospital. Rarely a private plane was converted to carry a stretcher and, weather and pilot permitting, flew to the most available off-Island hospital. Nothing about this was easy or efficient, but it was possible and time-consuming for everyone. Local ambulance service was provided by the funeral directors' "converted" station wagons. Blood for transfusions was available only on call to the Red Cross. It's no wonder I awoke in the night after that interview sleepless with an upset stomach. My uncertainty was balanced off by my long determination to become a GP. The move to the Vineyard in September for the family and me became a great adventure, often a surprise or challenge by the day.

I walked into the central rotunda of the hospital on my first day at work and looked down the long east-west corridor and the shorter one running to the south. What a difference this quaint building would be from the high-rise New York Hospital and Rhode Island Hospital where I trained! A summer breeze cooled most of the building all season with never a thought of air conditioning. Patients treated in the small one-room ER lay almost within the radius of light beaming down from the central dome above the entrance. Patients being wheeled to the OR or x-ray room were chest-to-knee with those waiting along the corridor wall. Often greetings between friends occurred in the progress down the hall.

The kitchen, located in more or less the same location as in recent years, served a cafeteria room large enough for a single picnic table and two benches. One evening, while I took a break from attending a "confinement" case in labor, a nurse slipped in for coffee. She sat with difficulty, being nearly at term herself. She looked peculiar for a moment and uttered a long breath and sigh. Without hesitation everyone rose as one and wheeled the mother-to-be at break-neck speed to the delivery-labor room. Baby was born before everyone had swallowed her coffee.

The original hospital underwent countless alterations and refinements over the years. A West Chop family donated funds to build an addition in the back to house a delivery room and separate labor room, scrub station, a visitor's room and nursery. As I recall, there was a crawl space below this addition, not a full cellar. One evening while cleaning up in the delivery room, a nurse bent over to pick up what she thought was a piece of rope. It turned out to be an errant snake about four feet long. Without hysteria, she scooped up the intruder safely into a pillowcase and called the police. Although this experience has been unique in the history of MVH, there followed occasional intrusions of skunks below the floor. Oak Bluffs firemen evacuated the intruders. No one told exactly how the feat was accomplished but the result, of course, was enough stench to water the eyes during the short walk beyond the OB doors.

The old hospital from 1925 served the community well for 50 years but by the 1970s all agreed that the charming cottage building was totally out of sync with the times. A new plant was built with physician's offices and improvements in all services. However, mysterious faults dogged the life of what I still call the "new hospital." After storms, one took care walking the corridors to avoid the pails catching drips from the ceiling or slippery places on carpets soaked with the rain. Herring gulls feasted on a new type of roof coverage. We had asked for a less crowded, more spread out plant and we knew we got it from the miles we walked every day. It has been a long way from cruising snakes and the stink of skunks, a long way through leaky roofs and irregular heat and cooling and a long way since 1925.

This week I opened the Times special report and began cruising the names of subscribers to the $42 million raised since 2005. Before I knew it, I was on the way to read every name as a sort of private meditation. First came eye-popping bequests of over two and a half million dollars, then over one million; the pages rolled on through slowly declining amounts. My mind boggled as the list grew endlessly. I recognized many of the names. More and more, they assumed the stature of ordinary and average Vineyarders, households, small companies and single persons whose life styles I knew to be modest, often cramped, yet these folks were in play also. I stopped reading to see how many more pages I could complete. To tell the honest truth, my eyes and brain played tricks on me as I realized I had already read the last two pages more then twice. What a show!