St. Clair Hospital celebrates 60 years of health care

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When St. Clair Hospital celebrated its 30th anniversary in 1984, it was a quiet celebration with cake in the cafeteria for hospital staff and employees.

But this time around, the Mt. Lebanon facility will go all out to celebrate 60 years since it opened its doors in 1954. There’s a gala event for the public being planned for July and a commemorative party for staff at a date yet to be announced.

“It’s an evolution that’s not over,” said G. Alan Yeasted, the hospital’s senior vice president and chief medical officer. “It’s just the first 60 as far as I’m concerned.”

Those who remember the hospital’s original design would perhaps not recognize the sprawling 598,000-square-foot campus that soars upward by as much as six floors today.

PG graphic: St. Clair timeline
(Click image for larger version)

“It’s probably at least four times the size of the initial footprint by now,” Dr. Yeasted said.

The 328-bed hospital plays a major role in the local economy, employing 2,230 people and 550 physicians. It has an annual operating budget of $280 million and treats more than 286,000 patients each year. There are about 1,350 babies born each year and 14,000 surgical procedures.

There are 46 exam rooms in the emergency department, which treats 62,000 patients each year.

The hospital was the idea of Mt. Lebanon doctor Arthur S. Haines, who thought the South Hills —-- or the “South County” as it was known in 1941 —- needed a hospital because emergency facilities in Pittsburgh could be up to 45 minutes away.

Dr. Haines pushed the issue with local residents and officials and by 1944, planning for the new hospital began just as soldiers back from World War II contributed to the first big population explosion in the South communities. Between 1936 and 1944, the area’s population increased from 45,000 to 104,000.

In 1945, a group of 40 local women formed an auxiliary and began going door to door, collecting donations for the new hospital and sponsoring fundraisers, like bake sales, raffles, card parties and fashion shows.

That same year, local businessman and philanthropist Arthur Silhol purchased 30 acres on Bower Hill Road, which he agreed to donate for the hospital.

Construction began in 1951 while fundraising continued until the hospital opened its doors to the public on Feb. 22, 1954. Police had to be called to direct traffic when more than 10,000 people showed up for the grand opening.

The new hospital had 104 beds and 35 bassinets. It was considered state-of-the-art as the only hospital in the region with piped in oxygen and voice intercoms in each room.

The first person to be treated at the new hospital was Antoinetta Daris, who was brought to the hospital by her parents, Margherita and Marcello Daris, Italian immigrants who spoke little English.

The 17-month-old baby had been fighting an intestinal virus for days. When she awoke on the morning of Feb. 22, 1954, in her Bridgeville home, her fever seemed worse and she was becoming dehydrated. Her frightened parents followed the advice of a neighbor’s doctor and took the baby to St. Clair, not realizing that the hospital wasn’t yet open.

Mr. Daris, who still lives in Bridgeville, dropped off his wife and daughter at the hospital around 9 a.m. —- an hour before the scheduled grand opening —- and went on to work.

Little Antoinetta was taken to the emergency department and quickly admitted as the first patient in the hospital.

Mrs. Daris, 25 at the time, became alarmed when she realized there were no other patients in the brand new building.

“My mother told me that she was already scared, with such a sick baby,” recalled Antoinetta, now known as Ann Menke, 61, of South Fayette. “Then she noticed as the nurse took us to the room that the hospital was completely silent. She realized that every room they passed was empty.”

Nonetheless, the young mother never left her daughter’s side. When she grew up, Ms. Menke had her two daughters at St. Clair and has been back to visit on numerous occasions, including in October, when she was presented with a commemorative silver frame containing the photo of her first visit.

The hospital saw 4,500 patients that first year. It reached full capacity within months, with 1,200 babies born there and 8,500 patients treated in the emergency department.

In the ensuing years, it became apparent that the South Hills would need a larger hospital to accommodate thousands of new residents who were filling new housing developments as quickly as they could be built.

By 1956, the hospital could barely serve all the people flooding through its doors. The population had tripled in the past 20 years.

The auxiliary was called upon again to raise $600,000 for a new wing housing another 40 beds.

That expansion was barely finished when, in 1962, another more ambitious project was started that was expected to ease the facility’s consistent 95 percent occupancy rate. It doubled the number of beds to 300 and provided upgrades and expansions to departments throughout the hospital.

By the 1970s, expansions continued, including a $28.5 million project —- the largest in the hospital’s history —-- in 1978 that doubled the square footage of the hospital.

Visitors and employees publicly groused about a plan in 1975 to build a five-story, 500-car parking garage that would charge users 75 cents to park.

“We’re accused of being ‘inconsiderate to the public,’” said Benjamin Snead, hospital administrator, in a archived Post-Gazette story.

Today, parking rates are about $3 to $4.

The 1970s also saw the installation of Clara Babb Ersoz, one of the nation’s first female medical directors of a community hospital. Dr. Ersoz became something of a grand dame at the hospital, serving as spokeswoman and the driver behind an effort to bring more quality physicians and services to the community facility, Dr. Yeasted recalled.

“She really came to St. Clair and started to change the concept of St. Clair as a community hospital and made it more of a university hospital,” said Dr. Yeasted, 65, who joined the hospital’s medical staff in 1978 as an internist. “She brought that mindset to St. Clair.”

While she fought for more quality care for patients, Dr. Ersoz wasn’t immune to the fight for equal rights for women. In an archived news story by the Post-Gazette, Dr. Ersoz —- who worked full time while raising two children —- defended the role of mothers in the workplace.

“I don’t believe working women encourage delinquency among their children,” she said in the September 1976 story. “It’s the quality, not the quantity, of time you spend with them.”

She was also a fierce defender of fellow physicians, especially during a war of words in 1991 with then-Allegheny County Coroner Joshua Perper, who served as something of a nemesis to St. Clair during his tenure.

Dr. Perper accused doctors in the hospital’s emergency department of misdiagnosing a Bethel Park woman who died 11 days after she was in a car accident. Jean Cavanaugh, 65, was treated and released at the hospital for broken ribs and bruises, but it turned out that she had a perforated colon that later became infected and caused her death.

Dr. Ersoz said doctors saw no evidence of such a rupture and were not to blame.

But Dr. Perper cited that incident as a “therapeutic misadventure,” and called for a review of hospital procedures after three more people died due to accidental drug overdoses by St. Clair staff members during the next 16 months.

“Physicians, like anyone else, make mistakes,” Dr. Perper said at the time. “This is not an indictment of the staff of St. Clair Hospital.”

But, hospital administrators didn’t see it that way.

“We’re really taking it on the chin and we’re really getting sick of it,” Dr. Snead said in response to Dr. Perper’s criticism.

Dr. Ersoz died tragically on July 17, 1996, as a passenger of TWA Flight 800, which crashed off the coast of Long Island on a flight from New York to Paris. Dr. Ersoz was taking a long-anticipated trip to Europe with her husband and nephew to celebrate her retirement. They, along with all of the 227 other passengers, perished in the crash.

“It was very sad. She was a wonderful lady,” Dr. Yeasted recalled of his colleague.

No action was taken against the hospital for the accidental deaths, and Mr. Yeasted, who has been the chief medical officer for 14 years, said there have been dramatic changes to improve patient safety in the years since the spate of incidents.

“Those were very unfortunate situations and I like to think they wouldn’t happen today at the hospital,” Dr. Yeasted said. “The technology and the processes would prevent that from happening today. We have tried to improve standards of care and that’s really changed the attitude of people at St. Clair.”

One of the fail-safes now included in treatment is a robotic pharmacy.

“We were the first hospital in the United States to have the robot in the pharmacy,” Dr. Yeated said of the invention, unveiled in 1992. The robotic drug distribution system automatically dispenses drugs and restocks them.

“We have our second pharmacy robot now —- it’s done hundreds of thousands of prescriptions and never made an error —- it’s worked for years and years,” Dr. Yeasted said. “We’ve been trying to stay at the forefront of high tech for a long time.”

In 2004, the hospital again pioneered an important patient safety product: a hand-held barcode scanner for bedside medication administration. The innovations have reduced medication errors and significantly improved patient safety, Dr. Yeasted said.

The facility’s location in the heart of the South Hills has also helped it to attract the most talented healers, Dr. Yeasted said.

“We’ve had a tremendous ability to recruit high-end specialists at St. Clair because of its location in the South Hills,” Dr. Yeasted said. “I think that’s what I’ve seen evolve —- higher quality physicians who want to work and live in a community like this —-- that’s where St. Clair has been able to excel.”

In recent years, the hospital has begun branching out, first with an outpatient center in Village Square Mall in Bethel Park, then with a similar location opened last year in Peters.

The Village Square location has been expanded over the years, and an urgent care center was the most recent addition earlier this month.

The hospital also operates a professional office building adjacent to the hospital and an MRI center in Bethel Park.

No matter how big it gets, Dr. Yeasted said the hospital will hopefully never lose its sense of community and its mission to offer local people the best and most innovative health care in the South Hills.

“We continue to look for ways to improve,''  he said. “St. Clair is a hospital that maintains its high quality and quest for excellence but still maintains that community atmosphere — you feel like you’re at home when you’re there.”

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