Santa Paula Memorial Hospital closes the doors
December 24, 2003
Emotions run high after closure of hospital
Santa Paula News
By Peggy Kelly Santa Paula TimesAs of noon Friday, almost exactly one year to the day that Santa Paula Memorial Hospital trustees announced that the facility was out of money and in danger of closing, the lights, at least figuratively speaking, went out at the “Hospital on the Hill.”Soon gone and job hunting will be most of the hospital’s remaining 200 full- and part-time employees. Some will be left behind to clean and pack, complete reports and keep the business office open.Others will be standing in line at the unemployment office where they might learn – like others recently let go from SPMH – that employer payroll contributions had not been made in recent months.Talks between SPMH trustees and county health representatives have dragged on for six months amid finger pointing that each is to blame for delays and derailing affiliation negotiations.Helicopters are flying sick people out of the valley who had time to make it to SPMH, but now must be taken to an operational emergency room while precious life-saving minutes tick off.Thousands of babies have been born at the “Hospital on the Hill,” a source of particular pride to Santa Paulans and other river valley residents who knew that the community built the 49-bed facility, from land to bricks and mortar.For over 42 years, hospital windows offered patients a birds eye view of the river valley. The windows no longer draw glances from patients who appreciated the serene scene so important to body and soul.The Pink Parasol Gift Shop was still in business, but the Auxiliary, a major hospital contributor of cash and labor for generations, frets about their stock, their customers and their passionate devotion to SPMH.The gift shop, expected to remain open at the “Hospital on the Hill” for the time being, was also due to close Friday.“I hope our hospital will come back again but I don’t have a lot of faith,” said Martha Knight, whose late husband, James, ran SPMH for decades, from its opening day until his retirement in 1988. “I feel real bad and I imagine Jim is just rolling, thinking ‘What the hell is going on?’ I’m not saying things would be right if he was still there, but they would have been a hell of a lot better,” with Knight’s reputation of proactive management and quick reaction.Martha Knight said she did her best to alert the board that the hospital was in serious financial trouble, holding a meeting with selected board directors and Chuck Myer, former CEO of Community Memorial Hospital, in the summer of 2002.“I tried in the past to get the board to realize the financial situation, how bad it was, to no avail. Chuck saw what records I could get, told them they were virtually bankrupt and exactly what they should do, but they didn’t even listen, just sat there and acted like everything was just fine,” during the three-hour meeting.All around the hospital on Friday there were tears, anger and questions of how it came to this.The SPMH “family,” as employees always called it, as well as the residents of the Santa Clara River Valley, are angry and depressed, frightened and frustrated.Evidence of hospital support is everywhere, from the Robert & Mary Louise Hardison Business Office to the Nursing Services Directors office. The latter office, complete with natty rattan furniture, was “Presented by Mr. & Mrs. Paul Leavens in memory of Mrs. J. G. Leavens,” notes the plaque on the door, opposite the lobby switchboard where receptionist Gloria Meraz wiped away tears.
The Honor Roll of Donors is a “Who’s Who” of supporters who again proved that when it came to taking care of one’s own, the river valley community couldn’t be beat. The hospital became only one of three in the state built entirely with community donations.The door at the hospital isn’t actually being locked, noted Karin Lyders, the nursing/patient services supervisor who in recent weeks became SPMH’s chief spokesperson.Most of the employees will remain at the hospital for 30 days, cleaning, storing and finishing up records. Medical records of patients will be available for pickup soon. About 40 employees will stay longer, she added.“I think people are panicking because the hospital is closing but the corporation’s not,” Lyders said Friday morning. “I hope there is a long-term plan for a building a new facility,” to replace SPMH, which needs retrofitting and remodeling. “It would be seed money when they sell the land and pay the vendors. I hope whatever they do, they make a decision quickly.”Lyders said SPMH has “been my career,” for 34 years when she started in maternity as an RN.Security will patrol the hospital at night and the narcotics have already been removed. Some leased medical equipment is being returned and arrangements for the art collection finalized.A few have said that the community could be also be called upon to help create a new hospital, but the community had a hospital said many of those interviewed Friday.Clam chowder, pasta with meat sauce and fish were among the items on Friday’s menu at the hospital cafeteria.“It’s the Last Supper,” said one employee grimly as she set her tray down on a dining patio table.“I keep hearing about the land but nothing about the patients,” said Dr. Guillimero Acero, the longtime pathologist. “The hospital has been a part of my life,” and so strong the devotion of the doctor and his wife that they arranged a $1 million life insurance policy benefiting SPMH. The hospital is paying the premiums, he said with a sharp laugh.“I really did my best to keep this place going. If you have a heart attack and you don’t get care in the first 10 or 15 minutes, you’ll die. . .that’s what we’re facing now and it’s terrible. It’s a sad day for this community”“The board has the land and the building and the people are getting the shaft,” said another physician.“All I can say is let’s not get sick,” grimly noted Madeline Ricards, an Auxiliary member working in the Pink Parasol Gift Shop.