JoEllen Prickett has kept all the documents heralding her as the first baby born 50 years ago at Spokane Valley General Hospital.
Her arrival was a big deal on Feb. 6, 1969, just 11 days after the facility opened Jan. 26.
An epic snowstorm hit the region as the hospital was opening, shutting down roads. Prolonged bad weather delayed full operation, so patients weren’t admitted until that February day.
When her parents Joel and Phyllis Prickett showed up, hospital workers nearly turned them away.
“There were 6-foot snow drifts the year that I was born,” said JoEllen Prickett, who lives in the Seattle area. “That’s the reason why they went to Valley General, because it was close.
“They got all the way there and somebody at the hospital said, ‘We’re sorry; we can’t take you.’ My mother said, ‘Oh yes, you can; you’re going to have to.’ ”
A similar story marked the first twins at Valley Hospital – girl Cheryl Custer and boy Christopher James Custer, born April 9, 1969. The hospital had only one incubator when the pair arrived premature, so a call went to Deaconess Hospital for another one.
This Wednesday, MultiCare Valley Hospital is celebrating such memories with a “Born at Valley” reunion for anybody delivered there in the past 50 years. Part of 50th anniversary events, the fundraiser at Arbor Crest Winery benefits its birth center.
Valley Hospital got its start largely because Spokane Valley doctors were tired of driving downtown if their patients were hospitalized. Along with a busy emergency room, surgeries and general care, there have been thousands of births.
About 750 babies are still born there each year.
As that first baby, Prickett enjoyed some notoriety. The hospital gave her a $25 savings bond to mark the occasion, and Ross Laboratories offered a free supply of infant formula.
Prickett kept a news clipping with information about the day: “JoEllen Ann, who doesn’t realize that she is the first baby born at the new Spokane Valley General Hospital, is held by her mother while her father looks on,” it reads. “Mr. and Mrs. Joel Prickett live at N. 2402 Park and he works at the Inland Empire Paper Co.”
It was an uncomplicated birth. “I just remember my mom telling me I messed up her dinner because I was born at 6:20 p.m.,” Prickett said. “Right after I was born, my dad took me into the Inland Empire Paper Company and showed me off.”
The twins’ parents Jim and Jennifer Custer, founders of Jim Custer Enterprises, went to Valley Hospital because of convenience to meet the family doctor there.
“In those days, your family doctor was your specialist and everything,” Jennifer Custer said.
The parents discovered a few weeks before the birth that she was carrying twins, who were born about a month before the expected due date.
Initially, there were concerns at the birth because Christopher Custer weighed 3 pounds, 9 ounces. His sister, now Cheryl Custer-Branz, was born after him and weighed 5 pounds, 7 ounces.
“I think she was kinking my umbilical cord,” joked Christopher Custer, interviewed with his sister.
Custer-Branz said her brother’s newborn life was saved because the hospital used a respirator for babies developed by Dr. Forrest Bird of Sagle, Idaho. Bird, who died in 2015, was renowned for inventing the modern respirator and a device for infants nicknamed the Babybird.
“My parents ended up becoming friends with Dr. Forrest Bird,” she said. “My mom was able to tell him, ‘Your invention saved my son’s life.’ ”
Custer-Branz bought the family business in 2001 with her husband, Clint Branz. The company puts on arts and craft shows, antique and collector shows and the Spokane Home & Yard Show. Custer-Branz also is a singer-songwriter who does regional solo acoustic guitar performances.
After living 30 years in Alaska, Christopher Custer moved in fall 2017 with his wife to Coeur d’Alene. He’s vice president of safety and training for a tour bus company.
The twins grew up in a Spokane Valley home just off Bowdish and 17th Avenue. They walked to nearby schools, including the old University High School.
Christopher Custer said there wasn’t much focus on being fraternal twins growing up. Their parents supported separate classrooms and individual interests.
“Other than early birthdays, it just felt like I had a sibling,” he said. “Other people were more surprised as we got older. We don’t necessarily look a lot alike.”
Custer-Branz recalls reading a reoccurring history article in The Spokesman-Review noting their birth.
“Growing up, there was a feature in the paper that said on this day in history, Christopher and Cheryl Custer were the first twins born at Valley General Hospital,” Custer-Branz said.
“When I was younger, I thought everyone’s name was in the paper for their birthday that way.”
It’s come in handy as a conversation starter. “I’ve always used that at a business function when they say to tell something about yourself, because it’s unique.”
Her brother later had another connection to the hospital. Around 1989, he worked a summer at Inland Empire Distribution Systems and packed extra lunches for labor-intensive work. Then, his dad suggested he drive to Valley Hospital’s cafeteria.
“That became my lunch scene,” Custer said. “With a few dollars, you could load up, and the calorie-to-dollar ratio was very favorable.”
Prickett also has fond memories of Spokane Valley.
Her grandparents once had widespread property north of Trent Avenue along Park Road. Although her parents divorced, Prickett and her half-siblings spent much time together.
“My sister would drag me to Park Pool all the time, and to 7-Eleven,” she said.
Prickett had a daughter when she was 17, so she completed a GED and worked steadily. She held her first job at Skippers on Sprague, then Home Base. At age 21, she moved to Olympia and worked for Lamonts, and then was a nurse aide.
She returned to Spokane briefly to care for her mother, who died in 2001. Her dad died this past year.
In 2001, Prickett began a career as a state employee in various positions. Now, she’s a legal office assistant in the attorney general’s office. But a favorite role is spending time with a granddaughter, 11, and grandson, 6.
“I like being a 50-year-old grandma,” she said. “I’m still agile enough to keep up with them.”
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