Town devastated by hospital closing
Share with others:
In the past half-century, Braddock has lost movie theaters, pharmacies, department stores, homes, thousands of industrial jobs and more than 80 percent of its population.
Yet yesterday's official announcement that UPMC plans to close the borough's 103-year-old hospital on Jan. 31 has stunned Braddock locals and elected officials, who had been seeing small but promising signs of economic renewal in recent years.
"No matter what, we've always had a hospital here," said Vicki Vargo, 52, executive director of the Braddock Carnegie Library and a resident of North Braddock. "I just can't imagine the community without a hospital."
Neither can many of the region's political leaders.
Allegheny County Executive Dan Onorato called UPMC's plans "disappointing and unacceptable." On Monday, he and U.S. Rep. Mike Doyle, Braddock Mayor John Fetterman and state Sen. Sean Logan plan to meet with the hospital system's executives, including President and CEO Jeffrey Romoff, to ask that the closure be taken "off the table."
UPMC officials said yesterday that the Braddock hospital has lost $27 million in the last six years and has seen a 21 percent drop in patient admissions from 2004 to this year.
Although he acknowledged the hospital's fiscal woes, Mr. Onorato argued that UPMC, as a recipient of significant sums of tax dollars, should not be in a position to unilaterally make a decision that could affect all of the Mon Valley, an area where Mr. Onorato has heavily focused economic redevelopment efforts.
He cited the county's ongoing projects like the $50 million renovation of the Rankin Bridge; the $15 million development of an apartment complex for senior citizens next to the hospital and the county's plans to market the old Carrie Furnace site for new development.
In recent months, the hospital has been putting finishing touches on a new entrance facing Braddock Avenue, a project that included $3 million in public money.
UPMC officials have promised to return the money, Mr. Onorato said.
Many Braddock residents believed such investments were part of a long-term commitment to the community.
"They're putting in new windows. How could they close?" Anita Esposto, who has worked at nearby Mele Brothers and Sister Florist for 25 years, asked her mother this week when she first heard rumors of the hospital's possible demise. "It doesn't make any sense."
In a dozen interviews along and near Braddock Avenue yesterday, people praised the convenience of having a hospital within walking distance.
Ms. Esposto said she takes her mother there once a month for blood tests. Nancy Ernst, 45, an administrative assistant at the 4 Kids Learning Center, said she regularly goes for asthma treatment. James Manns, 62, ended up in the emergency room two months ago, after he fell from his bike and broke two ribs.
"Where do we go now? Where do you go if you don't have your own transportation?" said Ms. Vargo.
UPMC's news release said many locals were already going elsewhere. Just one out of five Braddock-area residents visits the hospital for inpatient care, it said.
The shutdown will affect 652 employees at the hospital, including 70 residents of the Braddock ZIP code, but UPMC spokesman Paul Wood said most will be offered jobs at other facilities in the vast hospital system.
The announcement shocked many employees. Some were angry that they learned of the closure through the media.
"I cried," said Nancy Zagorac, 53, whose husband told her on the phone as she drove to work yesterday morning. "I was devastated."
Ms. Zagorac, who works in housekeeping, described the mood at the hospital as somber.
"You would think somebody passed away," she said. "It's like a family here. Everybody knows everybody."
According to a history of Braddock written by Bob Grom, of the borough's Heritage Health Foundation, Braddock General Hospital opened in the former Mills mansion on a knoll overlooking Braddock Avenue on June 27, 1906.
Starting with just 30 beds, the hospital expanded quickly to meet the needs of a growing industrial town. Its west wing opened in 1911, and the east wing opened six years later, bringing the total number of beds to 130.
The hospital also started its own nursing school.
In 1935, the Sisters of Divine Providence signed an agreement to run the institution.
UPMC purchased the faltering Braddock Medical Center in 1996, and it has invested about $30 million in the 277,000-square-foot facility since then, including the new $8 million facade that hasn't even had a ribbon cutting yet.
Many people lament the potential loss of yet another gathering spot in a community with dozens of abandoned buildings along its main strip.
UPMC has promised to maintain many of its outreach programs, including the Steps to a Healthy Community project, Health for Life summer camp, the UPMC Braddock Dental Center and various youth mentoring and senior housing initiatives.
It was unclear what would happen to a YMCA on the hospital grounds. And Braddock likely will lose the hospital's coffee and gift shop, run by the Cot Club charitable organization.
Every day, local retirees visit the shop for $2.85 deli sandwiches and warm conversation.
"It just means so much to the community," said Philomena Stamerra, 77, president of the Cot Club, as she sat on a stool at the shop, wearing her red UPMC volunteer shirt.
Ms. Stamerra gave birth to all 10 of her children in UPMC Braddock, and she raised them in a three-story home on Carey Avenue. She lived in that same house until three years ago, when she moved to White Oak.
"It was wonderful. This was the best place in the world to raise your children," she said of Braddock in its heyday, when it boasted a population of 20,000. "You didn't have to go anywhere to buy anything."
Last year, according to census figures, the borough's population was 2,667.
Tony Buba, a filmmaker who has been documenting Braddock since 1972, said his 88-year-old mother still makes daily visits to the hospital coffee shop.
"This is really a surprise," Mr. Buba said of the hospital closure. "This could be the most devastating of all the losses."
First Published October 17, 2009 12:00 am