Altoona Regional Health System closed the facility formerly known as Mercy Hospital last week because it was inefficient to have two hospitals in Altoona.
The founders of Mercy Hospital established that institution 102 years ago because it was inefficient to have just one.
Times are different.
Mirror photo by Patrick Waksmunski
Butch Zavalanski (left), owner of Image Signs Inc. of Altoona, and employee Dave Kolarczyk cover the sign in front of the former Bon Secours Hospital on Wednesday afternoon.
In recent times, the issue has been high costs because of duplication of services, which means more workers and more equipment.
A century ago, the bugaboo appears to have been the restrictive staffing policies of Altoona Hospital - which merged with Mercy successor Bon Secours in 2004 to form Altoona Regional.
Altoona Regional closed Bon Secours because it recently completed a consolidation of all acute care services at its Altoona Hospital Campus, part of a $60 million project.
Life of a hospital
1909 - Association agreement drawn for Mountain City Hospital
1910 - Name changed to Mercy Hospital, opens July 14 for service in a converted private dwelling, with nine beds, six student nurses in training program; first patient is Chesney Morrison
1911 - Hospital expands to 17 beds
1912 - Hospital expands to 24 beds
1914 - Hospital renovated and expands to 34 beds
1917 - New hospital building constructed in front of original building
1927 - Hospital annex completed, increasing bed capacity to 180
1935 - Sisters of the Holy Family of Nazareth assumes management of hospital and School of Nursing
1937 - Nurse residence completed
1952 - School of Nursing accredited by the National Legion for Nursing
1953 - Convent built
1958 - Power plant constructed
1962 - New "B Wing" dedicated, 60 beds and ancillary services added
1967 - Intensive Care Unit created
1968 - Radioisotope department established
1969 - Altoona/Mercy hospital $3 million fund drive starts, with 60/40 share reflective of patient share
1971 - Pediatrics department renovated, School of Anesthesia opened and approved; stroke unit opens
1972 - 4.3 acres acquired; Coronary Care Unit opens
1978 - "Pavilion" opens, with 16-bed unit for intensive care, coronary and stroke patients; 45 medical-surgical beds; 30 obstetric-gynecology beds
1985 - School of Nursing closes in favor of affiliation with program at St. Francis College; Mercy gets MRI
1992 - Mercy Hospital becomes Mercy Regional Health System
1996 - Partnership begins with Bon Secours, name becomes Bon Secours-Holy Family Regional Health System
1999 - Hospital affiliates with Conemaugh Health System to become attractive for managed care and employers; helps launch open-heart surgery and provides round-the-clock helicopter
2003 - Sisters of Holy Family withdraw
2004 - Merges with Altoona Hospital to form Altoona Regional Health System; smaller acute-care facility renamed Bon Secours Campus
2011 - Bon Secours Health System withdraws as a partner; smaller facility renamed Seventh Avenue Campus
2012 - Seventh Avenue Campus closes at 3 p.m. March 28, ending 76 years of Catholic-sponsored health care in region; last patient is Maya Mowery.
A group of doctors and businessmen and a Catholic priest started Mercy at least partly because Altoona Hospital didn't permit doctors who weren't on staff to continue taking care of their patients after admitting them, according to two pieces in the Mirror - a letter to the editor in October 1907 preserved by the Blair County Genealogical Society and a "People's Forum" item in December 1908.
Perhaps tellingly, the authors withheld their identity.
Altoona's staff doctors were first-rate, conceded the letter writer, who signed himself "A PHYSICIAN."
"But how about the outside physicians?" he asked rhetorically. "Do they have any privileges or professional recognition there? Not one iota."
Outside doctors "cannot take a case of any kind, medical or surgical, to the Altoona Hospital without surrendering the patient to the care of the hospital staff and stepping down and out," he wrote. "This, in nine cases out of 10, is not a change agreeable to the patient and his family, who have come to place their confidence in the attending physician, and [I] cannot imagine any case in which it would be agreeable to the doctor."
That means that "a large number [of doctors in the area] find it necessary to send their operative cases to Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and Roaring Spring," said the writer of the People's Forum piece, who signed himself "MEDICINE." "[This] works a hardship on both the patient and doctor. A new hospital would obviate this difficulty at a great saving of both time and money."
A booklet published around 1929 confirms that intention in the introduction to its "History of Hospital," when speaking of its beginnings: "[an institution] whereby every physician in good standing would be granted the use of the hospital."
It doesn't make sense "to militate against the best interests of 80 percent of the physicians of the town," the letter writer states.
He didn't expect a hospital to allow doctors to follow their patients into the common wards, because that would create confusion, he said.
"[But] if a patient is willing and financially able to take a private room ... why cannot he be accorded the privilege of having the attendance of his own physician?" he asked rhetorically.
Altoona's exclusionary practice wasn't typical, according to the letter writer.
"As far as I can ascertain, Altoona stands alone in this policy of debarring and ignoring the physicians at large in its community. In the hospital at Johnstown, York, Reading, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia and other places too numerous to mention, the only distinction drawn between the staff physicians and the outside ones is the fact that the latter may not treat ward patients," he wrote.
There was also the issue of sheer capacity, according to the People's Forum writer.
"If all the cases now sent out of the city were sent to the present hospital [Altoona], it could not take care of half of them," he wrote.
Thus there was no danger that a second hospital would "cripple" itself and Altoona by dropping the census too low for each to sustain itself, according to the People's Forum writer.
There was also no danger in splitting the people's loyalty, the People's Forum writer claimed, referring to opponents of the project.
"The opposition to this project does not come from the people. It comes from certain high officials of the chief corporation of the city, who, owing to the interests of their friends, have undertaken to manufacture sentiment against the project, making it appear that it would work injury to the present hospital, which is under their control," he wrote.
Clearly, the chief corporation of the city at the time was the Pennsylvania Railroad.
The railroad, "driven by desperate need," created Altoona Hospital in 1883, donating the land for the site, which was convenient to the company's shops, according to a history on the Altoona Regional website. The company didn't abandon its creation after the founding but "continued to power the new hospital's early growth, even to the point of feeding and boarding the horse for its horse-drawn ambulance," the website states.
Less definitive as an indication of motive for establishment of Mercy Hospital, but suggestive, given the era's unreformed prejudices, is a passage in the introduction to a booklet published in 1918, on the opening of a new building. It cites the hospital charter: "open to all classes, without distinction of color or creed." The phrase is boldfaced.
There's a variation on that determination in the People's Forum item, which states that the hospital should be "open to every reputable physician in the city, regardless of race, creed or school, to treat his patients as he may choose."
Over the years, the community has identified Mercy/Bon Secours hospital as Catholic.
But it wasn't solely so.
"We were of various creeds," stated E. Elsworth Neff, the first chief of surgery and one of the 18 founders, as quoted in the Mirror in 1946, according to a history of the hospital published by the Blair County Historical Society in 2010.
There was even a continuing interfaith component. At least one of the 18 founders was Jewish: Abraham Abelson, a scrap iron merchant.
That Jewish presence continued through its history.
Developer Don Devorris, a current member of the Altoona Regional board, was a member of the Mercy board, like his father, Mike.
Jews and Catholics sometimes got "left out of [the same] things," like country clubs, or were both held in contempt by groups like the Ku Klux Klan, said Bill Wallen, executive director of the Greater Altoona Jewish Federation. So it was an easy stretch to work together sometimes, according to Wallen.
He was never uncomfortable in the partnership, as the nuns who ran Mercy were welcoming to everyone, Devorris said.
Jewish businessman Neil Port was unsurprised to learn of the Jewish presence at the beginning, as it reflects the tradition of "mitzvot," the call to perform acts of charitable kindness, he said.
It also reflects the Jewish tradition of being active in community affairs, wherever Jews have been, when the community has permitted it, Wallen said.
The hospital was also much less "mercy" than the name would suggest.
The association of founders actually started with the name Mountain City Hospital and were seeking a site in 1908. By the time they incorporated in November 1909, they had changed the name to Mercy Hospital in hopes of attracting the Sisters of Mercy to run the institution.
In early 1910, a committee negotiated with the order to take over. But the sisters weren't merciful in their dealings with the committee: Though they "warmly received" the men, they "immediately rejected" their proposition, according to a story in the Mirror in March 1910.
"The sisters then stated that the only way they would take charge of the new Mercy hospital was to have control of the institution, with power to appoint the chief surgeon, the staff of physicians and the nurses," the article says. "An effort was made to have them make concessions, but they refused to grant any."
The sisters further insisted they would need to run the hospital like Mercy in Pittsburgh, with that institution's chief surgeon to be called in on all important cases and with doctors given permission to ship their patients to the big-city hospital.
"The trustees could not overcome this ultimatum," the article states. So the leaders went ahead as a secular hospital, though they kept the name.
Then in 1933, with the hospital in financial difficulty because of the Depression, and after a fund drive fell short, the leaders went to the Sisters of Mercy again.
This time, the sisters couldn't afford to take over, according to the Historical Society document.
So in 1934, the directors called on the Sisters of the Holy Family of Nazareth, a Pittsburgh-based order.
It worked, so that in 1935, after 25 years as a secular institution with a religious sounding name, Mercy came under the management of a religious group.
The sisters solved the hospital's financial problems.
"Arrangements have been made by the board of trustees of the Mercy hospital whereby the financing of the institution's debts will be taken care of by the Sisters," a Mirror article stated.
Even then, however, the hospital was to "continue to be a non-sectarian institution," the article stated.
In 1996, the hospital doubled up on its religious-order affiliation, with the Holy Family order taking on partner Bon Secours Health Systems of Marriottsville, Md., an institution of the sisters of Bon Secours.
With two orders in charge - neither named Mercy - the hospital changed its name to Bon Secours-Holy Family Medical Center.
The partnership ended in 2003, when the Sisters of the Holy Family withdrew.
Then in 2004, Bon Secours merged with old rival Altoona Hospital to form Altoona Regional Health System.
During the time leading up to the merger, there were lots of resentments and fears, especially on the Bon Secours side. Leaders assured the smaller hospital's advocates that the smaller hospital would remain.
And it did, until last week.
At the end, there was sadness, but no protest.
"I understand very well why Altoona Regional is doing it," said Monsignor Michael Servinsky, who was an ex-officio member of the Altoona Regional board. "It is a financial imperative."
That doesn't mean he has to like it, he said.
After a century of division, the merger has succeeding in unifying the health care community, according to Servinsky.
"[Since the merger] there was one time when someone referred to us and them," he said. "[Just] one time."
That's remarkable, he said.
"It was always us," he said. "It was always about the community."
Mirror Staff Writer William Kibler is at 949-7038.