St. Rita’s: A look back

By Greg Hoersten - For The Lima News

The pediatrics unit in the 1960s contained 33 beds and plenty to do to keep children from getting lonely.

File photo | The Lima News

Topping Lima Mayor Bailis Simpson’s 1917 wish list were a “subway at Market Street and the railways” and “increased capacity for Lima hospital or abandonment of the present site for a new, modern hospital in a different location,” the Lima Daily News wrote on Jan. 16, 1917.

A century later, Lima’s still waiting for an underpass on Market Street. The new, modern hospital, on the other hand, was opened less than two years after Simpson’s speech to a Lima service club, although it wasn’t the improved Lima City hospital Simpson had in mind.

Instead, Simpson’s call for more hospital beds was answered in a letter written by Father A.E. Manning of St. Rose parish, which was published in the Daily News several days later. “Recent events make necessary now an announcement that was to be made early in February,” Manning wrote in the Jan. 19, 1917, edition of the newspaper. “Arrangements were completed two weeks ago for the erection in Lima of a modern fireproof hospital to be in charge of the Sisters of (Mercy). It will be what the Sisters’ hospitals are everywhere, for all classes and conditions of people needing hospital care, without regard to race or creed and will, besides supplying local needs, add to Lima’s prestige in this part of the state.”

That hospital, today called Mercy Health St. Rita’s Medical Center, is marking its 100th anniversary. It opened in December 1918 in the middle of the most lethal influenza outbreak in history.

“St. Rita’s was the fulfillment of a dream of the Right Reverend Monsignor A.E. Manning, the Reverend William Tobin, and Mother Bernardine McMullen, R.S.M.,” Robert M. Reese, a former director of development and public relations director of St. Rita’s, wrote in a 1976 history of Allen County. Reese added, “The name of St. Rita’s was chosen because many thought that the new hospital would never be built. Father Tobin had faith in the prayers to St. Rita, the patron saint of the impossible. Therefore, the hospital was given the name of St. Rita’s hospital.”

In late February 1917, a meeting was held to consider how to raise $150,000 to build the hospital. The funding campaign was heartily endorsed by the Daily News on Feb. 26, 1917, which noted that, while the City Hospital on East Market Street, had performed well for years, a second hospital was needed for the growing city. “May this Sisters’ Hospital rise to show what Lima hearts feel; what Lima generosity desires to do for humanity of all creeds, all races, all colors, all men, women and children who, during the strife of life are overtaken with misfortune.”

Work began in June 1917 and by Sept. 2, 1917, the Daily News was able to report that “The Sisters’ hospital, to be known as St. Rita’s, corner of High and Baxter streets, is now up to the second floor, which is considered remarkable, considering the difficulty in securing labor” because of World War I.

A year later, under the headline “St. Rita’s Is Wonder Place In Erection,” the Daily News wrote that the new hospital, which had reached six floors in height, would be the first in the country to have cork flooring, incinerators on every floor to dispose of waste as well as “steam tables, which will issue the patient’s food steaming hot.”

Among other features, the Daily News wrote in the Sept. 17, 1918, article was “sterilizing and operating equipment” of “the standard white make of goods, while the operating tables will be of the Balfour make, designed and exclusively used by the famous Mayo Brothers in their Rochester, Minn., institution.”

As the hospital neared completion in the fall of 1918, the Spanish Flu, so called because Spain was one of first places it appeared, had arrived with a vengeance. The flu would prove deadlier than World War I, which ended on Nov. 11, 1918. The pandemic of 1918-1919, according to some sources, claimed 50 million to 100 million lives worldwide, including perhaps 675,000 in the United States.

On Dec. 11, 1918, the Daily News reported that health authorities had “exhausted their last resources in fighting the epidemic,” that city undertakers had reported three deaths from influenza that day and that St. Rita’s had opened early “two entire floors for sufferers.”

The following day, in a listing of ambulance runs, the newspaper reported, “B. Rokowsky, manager of the Buckeye Paper Company, was removed to the St. Rita’s Hospital this morning. This is the first case taken to the new institution.” The “new beautiful St. Rita’s,” the newspaper opined in the same edition, “proves a godsend.”

“Mother Mary Bernardine McMullen, and a small group of Sisters, provided the first nursing services and patient care in those hours of great need,” Reese wrote. “After completion of the 101-bed hospital in 1919, St. Rita’s was placed under the Sister of Mercy with Sister Margaret Mary, R.S.M., appointed the first administrator.”

On Jan. 2, 1919, the Daily News reported James Halfhill Jr., “who was operated on at St. Rita’s Hospital for appendicitis, is much improved.” It was the first surgery performed at St. Rita’s. Halfhill would later become a doctor. On Jan. 6, 1919, Ruth Simmons became the first baby born at St. Rita’s.

Nineteen-nineteen also saw the establishment of St. Rita’s School of Nursing with the first class, comprised of five young women, graduating in 1921. The final class graduated 50 years later.

By 1945, “with the growth of Lima and increasing awareness of the hospital care, due greatly to an expanding hospitalization insurance program, Lima faced a need for more hospital space,” The Lima News noted in Jan. 1, 1950, story. As in 1918, a fund campaign was launched and in December 1948, a seven-story addition to the hospital was opened.

In December 1967, an eight-story west wing was dedicated, adding 150 more beds to the hospital.

The additional beds were needed as Lima’s population grew during the baby boom years. Few boomed louder than the family of Phillip Axe of Lima. On March 4, 1963, Barbara Axe gave birth at St. Rita’s to identical quadruplets, an event the News calculated, “occurs once every 659,472 births.” The births were rare enough to bring the “Today Show,” magazine and newspaper writers and Ohio Gov. James Rhodes to Lima to see the quadruplets, named Susan Marie, Anna Marie, Rita Marie and Julia Marie.

St. Rita’s was in the news for an even rarer event in 1970. Matthew Winkler, a 6-year-old Willshire boy who contracted rabies when bitten by a bat in October 1970, became the first known survivor of the disease thanks to the efforts of a team at St. Rita’s led by Dr. C.J. Stechschulte.

The 1970s also saw the beginning of same-day surgery at St. Rita’s, the opening of a dedicated oncology unit and the announcement of plans in February 1974 for further expansion. In 1975 an eight-story patient tower with a new emergency room with the first CAT scan in the area opened.

In 1977, to better reflect the services provided and communities served, St. Rita’s Hospital became St. Rita’s Medical Center. The first satellite facility, the Putnam County Ambulatory Care Center, opened in 1982.

Other advancements followed in rapid succession. Hospice services began in 1983, the Allison Radiation Oncology Center opened in 1985, a chest pain center in 1992 and a Medicare clinic in 1993.

In May 1993, work began on the $27.5 million New Century Project, a five-story building containing an expanded and renovated emergency room, operating rooms, radiology services, intensive care facilities and cardiac catheterization lab.

Beginning in the early 1990s, St. Rita’s in alliance with Lima Memorial Hospital began a campaign to convince the Ohio Department of Health to allow open-heart surgery in Lima. Those efforts came to fruition in April 1997 when Dr. Siavosh Bozorgi performed the first open-heart surgery in Lima.

As the 20th century drew to a close, St. Rita’s began Lifeflight service, opened a new Putnam County Ambulatory Care Center and Medical Park in Glandorf and a Women’s Wellness Center in Lima. St. Rita’s also operates separate facilities in Delphos and Wapakoneta to serve other parts of the region for orthopedics, rehabilitation and other services.

In 2001, St. Rita’s Regional Cancer Center was completed while, three years later, another major expansion began. In March 2004, St. Rita’s unveiled a $130 million expansion dubbed “The Medical Center of the Future.”

“St. Rita’s Medical Center will dramatically change the landscape of its six-block campus to just as drastically change patient care,” The Lima News wrote March 24, 2004. “A $130 million expansion will create a nine-story patient care tower on a city block, a reconfigured traffic pattern and main entrance, and up to 500 new permanent jobs and construction jobs.”

The new north tower was completed in 2007; a new name was adopted 10 years later. The new name, Mercy Health St. Rita’s Medical Center, was unveiled during a public event in September 2017.

As St. Rita’s marks its 100th anniversary in Lima, the 101-bed hospital that opened just in time in 1918 staffed by a small group of sisters has grown into the largest health center in a 70-mile radius, employing about 3,000 people.

The pediatrics unit in the 1960s contained 33 beds and plenty to do to keep children from getting lonely. pediatrics unit in the 1960s contained 33 beds and plenty to do to keep children from getting lonely. File photo | The Lima News

By Greg Hoersten

For The Lima News