Medical Milestone: Looking back on 100 years of Yampa Valley Medical Center | SteamboatToday.com

Medical Milestone: Looking back on 100 years of Yampa Valley Medical Center

Yampa Valley Medical center celebrates 100 years of service to the region in 2014. The Steamboat Pilot & Today takes a look back at the past 100 years of Yampa Valley's medical milestones.

— Yampa Valley Medical Center in Steamboat Springs serves patients from every corner of Northwest Colorado, with a much wider range of talented physicians than is expected in a community of its size.

Hospital officials constantly are looking to the future in order to plan, expand and improve what the facility offers, meaning more patients can receive medical care closer to home than before.

But without the original vision of a group of small-town doctors 100 years ago, YVMC may have never become what it is today.

The early years

Five community doctors first proposed the need for a hospital in Steamboat Springs through a letter printed in the Routt County Sentinel on Dec. 5, 1913.

"In only this one thing do we believe we have not kept up with the world," wrote the doctors.

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Not only was there a demand for a facility, they argued, but creating a hospital would boost the economy and draw more tourists.

When the Steamboat Sanitarium opened in spring 1914, an article in the Steamboat Pilot said the facility had "every equipment required to take care of the sick."

Six physicians and one nurse cared for patients, along with a single surgeon.

The hospital quickly was relocated from its first location on the corner of Sixth and Pine streets to the former Albany Hotel down the street, the present-day Old Town Pub building.

One of the hospital's founding doctors, Frederick Ewing Willett — fondly remembered as Doc Willett — would purchase the mismanaged hospital in 1915, beginning a legacy of community health care that would continue under his leadership for more than 35 years.

"He just had a way with people," said Jim Stanko, Willett's great-nephew and one of the only living direct descendants of the doctor. "He wasn't just their doctor, he was their friend."

In 1921, the hospital moved again to a converted apartment building on the corner of Seventh and Pine streets downtown, where it continued to operate under the careful and generous practices of Willett, who was remembered as being the physician who never sent a bill.

"I've never felt that it was anyone else's worry much whether I went broke or not," said Willett in a 1950 interview in the Rancher & Farmer publication.

Some doubt the idea that Willett never sent a bill, including Christine McKelvie, a member of the hospital's marketing team who is writing a book about the hospital's history.

"He did operate it very philanthropically," she said.

McKelvie acknowledges that Willett was very popular in the community, and though he was never the only doctor at the hospital, it's his story that is remembered most widely.

In addition to practicing medicine, Willett was on the town board and was mayor from 1920 to 1926, and Stanko recalls that Willett was responsible for planting many of the trees downtown.

It's been printed countless times that Willett was dedicated to the community and its health.

During an influenza outbreak after World War I, Willett fixed a bed to a sled, hired a driver and was gone day and night traveling between ranches on house calls, according to the article in Rancher & Farmer.

He "got his sleep in snatches while going around the country from one call to the next," the article read.

As Willett neared retirement in 1946, he once again appealed to the community about the need for a more modern hospital.

"The building itself was not in shape to be a modern, post-war hospital," McKelvie said.

He agreed to sell his Seventh Street hospital and donate the $15,000 in proceeds to the construction of a new facility, capable of tending to an increasing number of patients.

The Steamboat Springs Hospital Association was formed in 1946, and the group's board of directors selected a roughly 5-acre site on Park Avenue as the location for the new Routt County Memorial Hospital.

Hospital officials knew they would need to rely on the generosity of the community to fund the new facility, which never was a tax-supported entity.

"It was very difficult to operate a hospital in a very small town," McKelvie said. "It seemed like everybody gave something."

The first patient was transported from the old hospital to Routt County Memorial Hospital on Aug. 13, 1950.

An office was constructed on the lower level of the new hospital for Willett, who continued to practice until his health deteriorated in the 1960s and he became a patient of the hospital himself in July 1970, dying that December.

Throughout the next 30 years, the facility was renamed Routt Memorial Hospital to eliminate any doubt that government funding was collected for its operation.

The opening of Steamboat Ski Area in the 1960s prompted a need for increased services and subsequent expansions until the early 1990s, when hospital officials once again recognized the need for more space.

A new era

Located on a property of fixed size on Park Avenue, the hospital's board in 1992 began the search for a new, larger home for Routt Memorial Hospital.

"We didn't have enough space where we were," said John Kerst, a community member who began his decade of service on the hospital board around 1990.

Officials purchased 29 acres of vacant land in the Fairview Meadows neighborhood near the base of the ski area and began discussions about building a new facility at the site.

"The center of town had moved to the southeast," Kerst said. "The board felt that it should be at a location more central to town."

But neighbors of the proposed site weren't so sure.

"They liked having the open space; who wouldn't?" said McKelvie, who was public relations director for the hospital at the time. "It was an emotional issue."

"We wanted the community to support what we were doing," Kerst said.

The next three years were spent considering other sites, and a series of community forums took place, but hospital officials ultimately purchased additional acreage and decided the Fairview Meadows site was best.

A draft site plan was released in 1996, which included a buffer of trees and a walking path between the campus and nearby homes. The proposal also included the addition of Pine Grove Road to absorb some of the anticipated traffic increase along Steamboat Boulevard.

It also was decided that the main structure would be one story tall.

McKelvie said Kerst played an integral role in getting neighbors on board with the plan, though Kerst said it was a team effort from the hospital board of the 1990s.

"There was no one individual that did anything. It was a group that cared about the community," he said.

Once some neighborhood concerns were addressed, the Steamboat Springs City Council approved the plans, and a hefty fundraising campaign began.

Community donations generated about $6 million, with the rest of the $24.9 million project leveraged with bonds.

Construction broke ground in February 1998 on the 123,000-square-foot building, which would use a new name: Yampa Valley Medical Center.

When it opened for patient care Nov. 21, 1999, there were 29 patient beds, three operating rooms and 12 emergency department spaces.

"We were so lucky to get this facility built," said Dr. Dave Wilkinson, who served on the hospital board from 1987 to beyond the construction of YVMC.

"It was clean, it was new, it smelled good. Everyone was so enthusiastic," said Wilkinson, who now oversees the emergency department at YVMC.

A special section in the Steamboat Today called the new facility "a monument to community collaboration, fiscal planning, medical technology and future vision."

The adjacent medical office building, the Doak Walker Care Center and GrandKids Child Care Center opened in 2000.

"It really was a stunning improvement for the town," McKelvie said.

Although he never was a patient of the hospital himself during YVMC's planning and completion, Kerst said he knew the value of creating a strong, regional medical center for Steamboat.

"It's one of those things that you do for the community and for the future," he said.

Looking back

In a spacious conference room in the eastern wing of Yampa Valley Medical Center, veteran registered nurse Irene Meyers is quick to recall just how different today's facility is from the small building on Park Avenue she entered in 1973.

Meyers, who still picks up the occasional shift at YVMC, enjoys the activity of today's hospital, which saw nearly 8,000 emergency room visits and 4,000 surgical patients in 2013.

But she also remembers a quieter time in the early 1970s, when she would look after patients on the overnight shift, accompanied only by a nurse's aide, without any doctors or other staff members.

"I covered it all. It was pretty scary," said Meyers, who arrived in Steamboat from a busy San Francisco medical center where she was a nurse in an intensive care unit and kidney transplant unit, specializations only nurses in larger hospitals had at the time.

If a problem arose late at night at the hospital in Steamboat, Meyers and her nurse's aide had no one to turn to — doctors on call could take 15 minutes or longer to arrive — leaving her in charge in many scenarios.

"There were no interns, no residents, so you had to have some background," Meyers said. "We all knew we couldn't be good in every field, but we were really working hard."

Inclement weather could pose difficulties, as well, and Meyers remembers one night when a storm was so severe that kitchen staff couldn't make it to the hospital in the morning, meaning Meyers had to figure out how to prepare the patients' meals for the day.

As years went on, specialized nurses were added in the obstetrics department and emergency room.

"It was a great, great relief," said Meyers, who later became assistant director and then director of nursing, a case manager and treatment room nurse at various times during her tenure with the hospital.

And although the hospital expanded throughout the next decade, it still felt like a quaint, community hospital to Dr. Dave Wilkinson when he arrived in 1983.

"In a small hospital, you have to wear a lot of hats," Wilkinson said. "And it was clearly a small, rural hospital."

Wilkinson remembers injured skiers arriving at Routt Memorial Hospital and asking "Is there anything else?"

A separate entrance at the hospital was marked by a sign reading "Ski Injuries Only" directing patients into the busy area for outpatient treatment.

During that time, X-rays for patients were examined by projecting them on a light box, a difference from today's strictly digital scans viewed on computers.

If a patient needed to go to the Front Range for additional care, their X-rays would travel with them or be sent through the mail, Wilkinson said.

Cardiac rehab nurse Susan Cowan remembers struggling to provide physical therapy in a small closet-like room at Routt Memorial Hospital in the 1990s.

"We were in this closet behind the CAT scanner, it was quite cozy," said Cowan, who now has worked at the hospital for 18 years. "There wasn't a lot of equipment to go around."

Cowan said the physical therapy department's move into the SportsMed area at YVMC was a huge change.

"This made a big difference," Cowan said. "We've been able to grow and provide. And we're nationally certified now."

SportsMed counted more than 18,000 physical therapy visits in 2013.

As Meyers has watched medical practices evolve during the past 40 years, she still believes that the basic principle of the field — to take care of the patient's needs — has remained the same.

"How to really take care of a patient, that's really the basis of it all, and that will never change," she said. "We will have to keep learning the new technology, but the basics are the basics. No amount of machinery or vital information will replace a nurse or doctor or other medical person."

Looking forward

From his office on the first floor of the medical building at Yampa Valley Medical Center, CEO Frank May reflects on the important role the hospital organization plays in the community.

Once only a handful of country doctors and nurses working in a small downtown facility, today's YVMC employs more than 500 people.

With health care a major consideration when locating a new business or relocating to a new city, it can be argued that YVMC is attracting new residents to the region, including the dozens of uniquely qualified physicians who contract with the medical center.

"The lifestyle brings high quality individuals into our community," May said. "The depth of our medical staff is unique."

A radiating feeling of comfort and pride exists for employees who report to work and patients who visit the medical facility for care, May said.

"You get a feeling when you walk down the hallway. People are friendly and engaged," he said. "There's a feeling of pride here."

Since its opening in 1999, YVMC has made numerous upgrades, including a $13 million expansion in 2010, doubling the size of the hospital's family birth place, increasing space for surgical services and other departments.

Looking toward the future, May said the hospital will continue to expand its services, while also increasing its efforts within the community, focusing on preventative care for residents of Steamboat and the greater region.

"We're recognizing we need to keep our community more healthy," May said during an early December interview, with the YVMC parking lot outside his office window serving as a backdrop.

A pink Breast Cancer Awareness Month banner hung from a light post, reflecting YVMC's community education efforts during October.

The hospital launched a campaign to encourage local women to have routine mammograms in the hospital's newest facility, the Gloria Gossard Breast Health Center.

The center boasts a tranquil, spa-like atmosphere, where patients are offered flavored water, heated robes and a private dressing and waiting room before appointments.

The center is equipped with a state-of-the-art, digital Giotto Stereotactic mammography machine, purchased for about $520,000.

"We're really looking into a model of having community health care. We have a role in keeping our community healthy," May said.

In the years ahead, another focus at YVMC, May said, will be to work more closely with other local health care agencies to streamline care and avoid duplication of services.

The future also provides room to grow within the space already constructed on the 48-acre campus.

The move of the Doak Walker Care Center for assisted living to Casey's Pond Senior Living center in fall 2013 left 26,000 square feet of open space at YVMC ripe for new development.

The space could be used for a cancer care center the hospital has discussed creating to strengthen YVMC's role in helping cancer patients — another area that has allowed locals the convenience of staying in Steamboat and avoiding trips to the Front Range for care.

"We feel like there's an opportunity to improve cancer care," May said.

He is confident that in the future, the hospital will continue its tradition of working within its means to progress with the times.

"We all recognize that there will be changes in what we're required to do. Things are changing very rapidly," May said.

The hospital will continue to avoid the silo mentality, embracing partnerships within the medical world and local community, May explained.

"The more ways we can figure out how to work together, the better."

To honor the tradition of community-minded health care first championed by Doc Willett 100 years ago, the Healthcare Foundation at Yampa Valley in 2009 began honoring others who embody Willet's legacy. Kerst, along with Dr. Larry Bookman, were the first two recipients of the Doc Willett Healthcare Heritage Award. Dr. Dave Wilkinson and Diane Moore, with Advocates Building Peaceful Communities, were the 2013 recipients.

"People were aware of (Willett's) value, and they really depended on him," McKelvie said. "We really do honor his vision, his dedication and his commitment to the hospital and to Steamboat Springs."

To reach Teresa Ristow, call 970-871-4206, email tristow@SteamboatToday.com or follow her on Twitter @TeresaRistow

YVMC 100 years timeline

Dec. 5, 1913 — Five Routt County doctors announce the need for a Steamboat hospital in a letter to the Routt County Sentinel.

April 13, 1914 — The Steamboat Springs Sanitarium opens to the public in the Payne building on Sixth Street.

Late 1914 — The facility is moved to a brick building on the corner of Sixth Street and Lincoln Avenue.

July 1915 — Dr. Frederick E. Willett purchases and takes over the financially mismanaged hospital.

June 1, 1921 — The hospital is moved to a new location in a converted apartment building on the corner of Seventh and Pine streets, purchased by Willett.

1946 — The nonprofit Steamboat Springs Hospital Association elects a board of directors that selects Park Avenue as the site of a new, modern hospital.

Aug. 13, 1950 — The Routt County Memorial Hospital opens at 80 Park Ave.

August 1976 — The hospital completes a $1.2 million expansion, including modernizing all 24 patient rooms and new X-ray machines and a new nurse’s station.

1992 — The Steamboat Springs Health Care Association purchases a 29-acre parcel at Fairway Meadows near the base of Steamboat Ski Area and planning begins for a new hospital at the site.

1992 to 1995 — Hospital officials hear concerns from neighbors about the proposed Fairway Meadows site and its location in a residential neighborhood, but after nearly three years, they choose to purchase some adjacent acres at the site and move forward with plans to build there.

August 1996 — A conceptual site plan for the new hospital is released.

February 1998 — Ground breaks on a new hospital in the Fairway Meadows neighborhood.

1999 — Yampa Valley Medical Center opens to the public at its present day location at 1024 Central Park Ave.

2010 — A $13 million project expands several areas of the hospital, including the Family Birth Place and Surgical Services department.

April 2014—The Gloria Gossard Breast Health Center opens.

2014—Yampa Valley Medical Center celebrates 100 years of service to the region.

Hospital staff

1914: Nine, including six physicians, one business manager, one head nurse and one surgeon/superintendent as well as a group of consulting physicians

1971: 32 employees and nine physicians, and a group of consulting physicians

2014—510 employees and 63 physicians and four dentists as well as a group of 19 physicians on the consulting/associate medical staff

Healthcare privacy

Along with many other practices that have evolved at Steamboat’s hospital throughout the years are regulations surrounding the privacy of patient information.

Along with every other medical facility in the United States, Yampa Valley Medical Center today abides by the privacy regulations set forth in the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 regarding patient information.

The information that YVMC’s public relations staff is able to release about a patient to the media today is in stark contrast to information printed in archived issues of the Steamboat Pilot, Routt County Sentinel, Oak Creek Times and other newspapers.

The following clippings are compared to the information that would be released today if a member of the media called the hospital to inquire about a specific patient’s condition, provided the patient hadn’t opted out of the hospital’s directory. If the name of a patient is unknown to the media, no information is released.

1918: Routt County Sentinel: “Rocco Murrio, a Mexican employed at the tipple of the McNeil Coal company at MacGregor was terribly injured by an accident Wednesday afternoon but at the Steamboat Hospital, where he is under treatment, he is reported to have good chances of recovery. . . An arm and some ribs were broken, his chest was crushed, he lost a finger and his scalp was nearly torn off.”

2014: Rocco Murrio is admitted and in serious condition.

1915: Oak Creek Times: “Jessie J. Taylor, an employee of Juniper mine, was operated on at Steamboat Springs hospital Thursday by Drs. J. H. Cole of Yampa and Willett of Steamboat. The young man, who is about twenty-five years of age, suffered from appendicitis and an obstruction of the bowels. The operation was a success and he is rapidly improving.”

2014: Jessie J. Taylor is admitted and in good condition.

1931: Steamboat Pilot: “Dr. F. L. Blackmer underwent an emergency operation at noon Wednesday at the Steamboat Springs hospital for ruptured gastric ulcer. Dr. F. E. Willett was assisted in the operation by Drs. W. W. Sloan and D. L. Whittaker of Hayden. Miss Sloan, sister of Dr. Sloan, is assisting in the care of the patient. Dr. Blackmer rested easy Wednesday night. There is no apprehension as to his recovery but it will be some time before he regains his strength.”

2014: Dr. F.L. Blackmer is admitted and in fair condition.

Translations provided by Heather Rose, manager of marketing and communication for Yampa Valley Medical Center.