Have you ever wondered what a deaconess is?
Or what Deaconess was?
After 100 years, it may be time to find out. Deaconess Medical Center of Spokane is in the midst of celebrating its 100th birthday as one of the most influential of all Spokane institutions. Yet most people wouldn’t know a deaconess from a decathlete.
A deaconess was, in essence, a female Methodist missionary. The deaconess movement began on the East Coast in the 1880s as a way of ministering to the spiritual and physical needs of the sick and needy. Deaconesses weren’t nurses; they were almost like nuns. In historical pictures, you see them dressed all in black, Bibles clasped grimly under arms, making visits to poor families.
In the raw Western town of Spokane in the 1890s, deaconesses discovered fertile ground for their ministrations.
A century ago last April, a group of Spokane citizens got together to incorporate the Maria Beard Deaconess Home of Spokane. It wasn’t much, nothing more than a small home on Third Avenue. It could hardly be called a hospital, since deaconesses were trained only in saving souls, not lives.
“The deaconesses were really forced into doing the medical work,” said Priscilla Gilkey, a co-author of “The Deaconess Story,” a history of the hospital, and director of community relations of the hospital’s umbrella organization, Empire Health Services. “They would rather have just taken bread to the needy or provide clothes to the poor people.”
In Spokane, they acquired their first patient by default. He was a British Columbia drifter who stumbled into the home in 1896. He came in while they were preparing breakfast, but it soon became apparent that an appendectomy is what he actually needed. So the deaconesses called in Dr. George Libby, who cleared off the table and did the operation right there in the kitchen. (The patient recovered fully, but he set an unfortunate precedent by never paying his bill.)
It soon became obvious that Spokane desperately needed more medical facilities. Sacred Heart Hospital had already been established, but the city was growing too fast to keep up. All over the country the deaconess movement was shifting toward hospital care, and the local Deaconess Association decided to do the same. In 1897, the Spokane deaconesses acquired their first official “hospital,” a 20-room home on Fourth Avenue which was called the Maria Beard Home and Hospital, later known simply as “the Deaconess.” In 1898, the hospital served 176 patients at a dollar per day.
The Deaconess hired its first trained nurse in 1898 - the deaconesses themselves still didn’t want to do medical work. By 1899 the hospital had established its own school of nurses, with the doctors doing the teaching. That first graduating class had four nurses.
The hospital grew and grew over the next decades. A new 50-bed building was completed on Fourth Avenue in 1907.
In those days, doctors still routinely used leeches for infections. The nurses not only did the nursing, but they did the cooking and laundry as well. They sang hymns as they went to duty each morning, and read the Scriptures to each patient every evening.
It was a hard job, and sometimes a dangerous job as well. When the great Spanish Influenza epidemic struck in 1917, five Deaconess nurses died during the grim effort to combat the disease. Nearly the entire hospital became an influenza ward - no surgical or maternity patients were admitted, and even the administrative offices became rooms for influenza patients.
In 1923 a grand new 150-bed hospital was completed. Meanwhile, the Roaring ‘20s came roaring into the nursing ranks. One nurse was discharged in 1921 because of her “cigarette habit.” Several others were disciplined in 1924 for sneaking out to a barber and getting their hair bobbed.
Then the Great Depression hit.
“The biggest goal in those years was to just keep the doors open,” said Gilkey.
Many of the patients couldn’t pay their bills, even though special discount rates were established for the unemployed. Yet progress marched on. Deaconess acquired the first oxygen tent in Spokane, and the X-ray machine soon made its first appearance.
In 1940, a young nurse-to-be named Anna Mae Ericksen also made her first appearance in the Deaconess nursing school.
“We all lived in the same dorm, had all of our meals together, and had to stand uniform inspection every morning,” said Ericksen, 77, retired after a 40-year career at Deaconess. “We had breakfast, then patient care, then on to class, which was up on 29th Avenue, where the old Spokane Junior College was. We had to walk it every day from the hospital (two or three miles). The instructor said we needed the exercise. So we’d hoof it, but we always got to ride the streetcars back because we had to be on duty again at 3 p.m. We’d be on duty until 7 p.m., and then we’d study for the next day’s classes.”
The “probies,” as the probationary students were called, did everything together - they even got in trouble together.
“We’d slip out at night through the window,” said Ericksen. “If we got caught, we got campused - got our privileges revoked. I got campused my senior year. That was part of the fun, to see if you could get away with it.”
She said student nurses today would think “we were in the Dark Ages, but we really weren’t.”
The emergency room, however, really was in the Dark Ages.
“We had one bed!” said Ericksen, who became the head nurse of the emergency room in the late ‘40s. “If we needed more room, we’d use the area where all the supplies were stored, all of the surgery packs and dressings. I said, ‘We’ve got to have some more room,’ so we increased it by two beds. Oh, I was rich.”
Even more primitive, by today’s standards, were the training procedures.
“No one really had any real training in the care of (trauma) patients,” said Ericksen. “It was about the time of Vietnam that we really began to learn how to take care of trauma patients.”
Before that, the trauma patients sometimes walked right in the door.
“When Saturday night came, the servicemen would go out and party and sometimes they would come right in to the lobby when they got hurt,” said Alma Ahrendt, who has been manning the switchboard for 37 years at Deaconess. She and her fellow switchboard operators would notify the emergency room to come and get them before they bled all over the lobby.
In 1969, Deaconess became the first hospital in Spokane to have a full-time emergency room physician. Then came the the advent of the medical evacuation helicopter, Lifebird, and vast improvements in the treatment of injured people at the scene. No longer were ambulance personnel trained only in what Ericksen called “scoop and run.” They actually treated patients at the scene and all the way in to the hospital.
“What a wonderful thing it was to see it evolve,” said Ericksen, who eventually became the president of the national Emergency Department Nurses Association.
Ericksen saw the hospital (and the entire medical profession) evolve in her 40 years of practice. When she started, new mothers stayed in the hospital for 10 days; now they are in and out in one to three days. Appendix patients stayed 14 days; now they go home the same day. Cataract patients used to have to lie in bed with sandbags on either side of their heads so they wouldn’t move; today, they’re in and out of the hospital by 10 a.m.
Harry Wheeler, 80, also watched Deaconess grow from what he terms “behind the times” to a respected regional medical center. In fact, he was one of the key architects of that turnaround. Wheeler was the first non-minister to be hired as the Deaconess administrator, and he ran it from 1955 until his retirement in 1982.
“The interior was really something - the stairways were all banged up and there were great chips out of them,” said Wheeler about conditions in 1955. “Up on the sixth floor was the surgery room, and there was no air conditioning. The humidity was abominable. In the summertime they would open up the windows and put up gauze nettings to keep the flies out. It was pretty archaic.”
Under his leadership, the hospital grew in size (major additions went up in 1961 and 1981) and also in technological capacity. The hospital became known as a cardiac center, a neo-natal intensive care center, a diabetes center, an orthopedic center, and, under Ericksen’s direction, the headquarters of the Spokane Poison Control Center.
Wheeler said this new commitment to quality made it easy for him to attract physicians.
“A lot of physicians liked the West, and Spokane looked like an up-and-coming place,” said Wheeler. “The number of physicians increased, and the number of specialities increased. It was kind of an about-face, you might say.”
“The (administration) went out and marketed, went to medical schools looking for residents,” said Ericksen. “And a lot of them stayed, and they were able to sell people at their schools on what was happening here in Spokane.”
Soon Deaconess, arm in arm with Sacred Heart Medical Center, had helped establish Spokane as major regional medical hub.
“It helped everybody, to tell you the truth, because health care is now a major industry in Spokane,” said Wheeler, who is enjoying his retirement near Kalispell. “And it was not back then.”
And, of course, it wasn’t just the doctors. It was the nurses and the custodians and the nurse’s aides and the telephone operators like Ahrendt.
“Sometimes we feel like we’re the bricks in the wall, like we’re part of the building,” said Ahrendt.
Today, Deaconess has 388 beds (second to Sacred Heart) and 1,500 employees, making Empire Health Services one of the largest employers in Spokane County.
Deaconess no longer has formal ties with the Methodist Church. Yet despite all of the expansion and all of the progress, the original spirit of Deaconess hovers over this vast modern enterprise.
That spirit is dressed all in black, carrying a Bible under an arm, and marveling at what Deaconess has become.
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: 3 photos
Subscribe to the Morning Review newsletter
Get the day’s top headlines delivered to your inbox every morning by subscribing to our newsletter