Hospital turns 40 |

Hospital turns 40

Dan Thrift/Tahoe Daily TribuneShirley Irving recalls taking a phone call for her husband, saying it was from "some Judy." Dr. Irving took the call from his patient, Judy Garland.

Before Barton Memorial Hospital opened in 1963, health care on the South Shore needed resuscitation.

When Dr. Ken Smith transported a woman in labor to a hospital off the hill in the early 1950s, he got a flat tire at the top of Spooner Summit. The woman was forced to put her foot on the brake as he replaced the tire.

When Shirley Irving fielded a call from “some Judy,” for her late husband Peter, a doctor, he promptly told her the patient’s last name — Garland.

When South Shore residents needed health care, they hung out in a waiting room on the front lawn of a clinic on San Francisco Avenue. The clinic was later replaced by one where the South Lake Tahoe Senior Center is now located.

“We were just happy to have a doctor and you trusted him with your life,” Pat Amundson said of the days when the practitioners made house calls.

Only in Tahoe would one hear medical stories like this.

One could hear a lot more April 14 during the National Volunteer Week luncheon at Harveys Resort Casino, when Barton invites auxiliary members to share stories of the early days to honor the facility’s 40th anniversary.

The hospital opened its doors in November 1963 after the first year-round physician, Dr. James Whitely, and a group of residents promoted the idea of a medical facility six years prior.

In 1957, someone died on the way to Carson Tahoe Hospital, illustrating the need for a local hospital, auxiliary members pointed out.

“I had all my kids in Reno,” longtime South Shore resident Patty Olson said.

The auxiliary underwent a massive fund-raising drive to drum up $498,000 in private donations to match available federal funds.

“We’d meet over coffee and brandy in the mornings then scour the neighborhoods,” said Olson, a founding member of the hospital auxiliary in the early 1960s. “A hospital in those days cost $1 million.”

The standard pledge was $200 — hard-earned money back then.

In perspective, Olson earned $90 a month as a United Airlines flight attendant. A chief surgeon raked in $100 more a month.

In 1958, a family of four could buy an insurance policy for up to $400 a year.

“Most agreed we needed (a hospital), but nobody had any money,” Olson said.

But after a long struggle scraping funds together, the idea turned into a reality — secured when ranchers Alva Barton and her sister Fay Ledbetter donated six acres of land where the hospital now sits.

It opened with 20 employees, eight physicians and 38 beds.

The 12-member auxiliary board footed the bill to keep the hospital running until private-pay services paid off.

It never closed, but “there were threats,” Amundson said.

The facility has undergone several transformations. In the summer of 1972, the hospital expanded to 52 beds in a $1.9 million renovation.

The original wing of the hospital, called the “snowflake building” because of its shape, has quadrupled — covering nearly 120,000 square feet today.

Its 140 people on the medical staff of its 900 employees serve 81 licensed acute-care beds and 48 skilled nursing facility beds. Medical services cover the gamut of health care, from lab work and physical therapy to radiology and skilled nursing. Acute care services include obstetrics, surgery, the emergency room and an intensive care unit.

Additional facilities have extended the hospital’s community outreach, such as outpatient medical imaging and laboratory, urgent care, family practice, community clinic, home health and hospice and a medical center in Carson Valley.

New services are constantly being added, with existing departments growing with patient demands and government regulations.

Some things never change.

“I can remember my husband complaining about malpractice insurance,” Irving said.

— Susan Wood can be reached at (530) 542-8009 or via e-mail at

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