Magee-Womens Hospital turns 100

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One hundred years ago today, Mrs. Alfred Birdsall became the first woman to deliver a baby in a makeshift hospital at Forbes Avenue and Halket Street in Oakland.

She was transported by horse-drawn ambulance to the homestead that was known as The Maples before it became a hospital for women and their babies, envisioned by state Sen. Christopher L. Magee in his will. As stipulated, it opened after his wife's death and was named Elizabeth Steel Magee Hospital in honor of his mother.

Now 10,000 babies a year are born on the same site in a bright, modern facility known as Magee-Womens Hospital of UPMC. But after a decade of expansion and evolution, many men come for treatment and surgeries, too.

"I would consider us a full-service hospital with a very strong emphasis on women's health," said Magee president Leslie Davis.

The transformation was necessary at a facility where more than a half-million babies have been born over the past century.

"The birth rate was flattened out completely in Western Pennsylvania," Ms. Davis said. And over the past 30 years, the length of obstetrics stays dropped from four to five days to two.

"It became pretty obvious new services were needed for it to continue to be a viable hospital even for women," she said.

Changes began in 1999, when the then-independent hospital became part of the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center.

Subspecialties for both men and women were added, and the obstetrics-gynecology practices were expanded.

The first male and female program added was the Bariatric Center of Excellence, which moved from UPMC's Presbyterian-Montefiore complex in 2001.

Several factors went into this decision, said Ms. Davis, who's going into her seventh year as Magee's sixth president.

Bariatrics is elective surgery -- scheduled in advance, in contrast to emergency surgery -- so it works well with Magee's obstetrics program, she said.

"It's a short-stay surgical program, which is very much of what Magee has been, a short-stay surgical hospital."

Even more recently, more doctors have arrived: family medicine physicians, gastroenterologists, dermatologists, rheumatologists, pulmonary specialists, orthopedists, urologists and neurologists.

"In the past, if a pregnant patient or a patient with breast cancer needed another type of specialist, she had to leave Magee and go somewhere else," Ms. Davis said. "Now it's much more coordinated because of all the subspecialists here at Magee."

Orthopedists, for example, do 900 joint surgeries a year, with 60 percent of them done on women "because of issues of bone loss and arthritis," she said. Obstetrics and gynecology, including cancer, were beefed up as well.

UPMC centralized obstetric services at Magee after closing maternity departments at UPMC Passavant in 2003 and UPMC Shadyside in 2004. In the past seven years, Magee has gone from 7,000 births a year to nearly 10,000.

The size of the women's cancer programs has doubled, she said.

"We were just ranked in U.S. News & World Report sixth in gynecology. We were 19th seven years ago," Ms. Davis said. In addition, collaboration between physicians and researchers in the Magee-Womens Research Institute, begun in 1992, led to the hospital being named one of six National Centers of Excellence by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services in 1996.

Magee has opened Magee at Passavant, which includes women's services but no obstetrics. It also is preparing to open its ninth women's imaging center.

Women's special health needs have moved beyond Sen. Magee's open-door policy for the hospital. In his will, he dictated that it "be open to the sick and injured of all classes without respect to their religion, creed, color, or previous condition ... "

The hospital's first staff included the medical director, two resident physicians, three senior medical students, 10 nurses, a social worker, a telephone operator, a housekeeper and a bookkeeper.

The permanent building housing Elizabeth Steel Magee Hospital opened on Oct. 15, 1915, with accommodations for 140 adults and eight infants.

Today, it has 318 beds, 2,500 employees and a medical staff of 1,500.

Male patients actually became a small but viable on-and-off presence early in Magee history. The hospital was closed in 1918 during the nation's worst flu epidemic and leased to the Army for stricken soldiers, the UPMC history says. It reopened in 1920.

In 1931, Magee and the University of Pittsburgh forged an agreement to establish a 28-bed medical teaching unit that was headed by James D. Heard, a professor of medicine. The hospital also was the first in the area to have an active teaching relationship with the university's School of Dentistry. Those relationships marked the start of actual medical surgery and a small number of male patients became a regular presence at Magee.

Magee merged in 1962 with Woman's Hospital, a facility specializing in treatment of diseases and conditions that was physically linked to Presbyterian Hospital, to become Magee-Womens Hospital.

Babies were its big business.

Maribeth McLaughlin, the vice president of patient care services and chief nursing officer, who started at Magee as a new graduate nurse 25 years ago, remembers going to the 40th anniversary of a clerical employee and meeting her mother, herself a former Magee worker.

The mother had worked in the sewing room when the hospital sewed baby T-shirts and blankets. "We don't have those services anymore, of the 'linen and sewing room' as it was called. Just knowing about something called 'the sewing room' is kind of neat," Ms. McLaughlin said.

The hospital hasn't stopped growing.

Ground-breaking is planned in March on a two-story addition that will be built on top of the existing structure, Ms. Davis said. There will be 14 intensive care unit beds and 28 patient rooms for a total of 42 new beds.

"Then next is to find a way to expand the emergency department to add more surgical capacity and eventually to put up a new ambulatory building," she said.

And after that?

"I think that's enough for now," she replied, laughing.

Pohla Smith: or 412-263-1228.


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