ELYRIA — Elyria was growing into its status as a city in 1907 when a committee of civic leaders held a meeting.
The meeting was to discuss the need for the city to open a hospital of its own. The bustling city had grown from a log house and a sawmill to 8,000 people in its 90 years.
The committee met May 28. Two days later, the need for a hospital was demonstrated in the most horrific way.
On Memorial Day two streetcars — one overloaded, with passengers standing and sitting on a rear platform — slammed into each other on Middle Avenue near Elyria High School.
Nine passengers died. Eight more lost one or both legs. Two were crippled for life and many others were injured.
The lack of immediate care was blamed for many of the deaths — and two of the dead were children of men who attended that meeting just days before.
The tragedy changed the community forever and brought to Elyria an institution. It led to the creation of Elyria Memorial Hospital, which opened 110 years ago today.
Through name changes, expansion and revolutionary changes in health care, the hospital continues to do what it has always done: serve the needs of its community.
“This is a great place to work and a great place to practice for physicians,” said Kristi Sink, president of the University Hospitals Elyria Medical Center. “We have a really grateful patient community. It is an honor to serve.”
The hospital joined the University Hospitals system in 2014, after courting many regional health care organizations, including Cleveland Clinic, Summa Health Care and Mercy Health, said Dr. William Larchian, president of the medical staff.
The hospital joins the other UH facilities in Lorain County, including the Center for Orthopedics in Sheffield, the Avon Health Center, Avon Rehabilitation Hospital and the Amherst Health Center, as well as independent physician offices.
With the advent of the Affordable Care Act — generally referred to as “Obamacare” — and a radically changed local economy, the business of health care was shifting, Sink said. Doctors and medical centers were compensated through Medicare and Medicaid funding and, as those reimbursement rates fluctuated, independent hospitals struggled to provide services.
“UH allowed Elyria to maintain as much independence as it wanted, instead of making it an outpost to funnel to other corporate hospitals,” Larchian said. “That was very important. They were going to allow Elyria to plant their flag in the ground. But there have been big changes. It was really a marriage and sometimes a hard marriage to get used to.”
Larchian, an urologist and surgeon who was recruited from the East Coast to work at Cleveland Clinic in the 1990s, moved to University in 2010 and was the first UH physician to come to Elyria. He’d trained and worked in “major medical meccas” like Boston University, New York’s Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center and M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston and was surprised by what he found in Elyria.
“One of the things that really surprised me — actually shocked me, to be honest — is, as a surgeon, the operating rooms and especially anesthesia department, was as good as any I’ve worked in,” Larchian said. “What I learned is that there is a little saying among surgeons that Elyria is the best-kept secret on the west side. The compassion and care that the physicians took, and the pride they took in how they delivered care to patients, was really unusual.”
Sink said the partnership with UH strengthened the hospital’s ability to offer quality care while staying a local hospital.
She said 25 physicians were added, and $100 million was spent to upgrade facilities and recruit more doctors, mainly in primary care and a mix of cardiac, vascular, pediatrics, orthopedics and gastroentology specialists.
Locally, the hospital has developed a reputation for its cardiac surgery and orthopedics, Larchian said. It has a growing obstetrics/gynecology, general surgery and primary care practice and the family birthing center is “terrific,” he said. It has been named to a “100 Top Hospital” national list 11 times.
UH Elyria recently announced an $11 million investment in a revamped surgical suite to expand the size of some operating rooms to allow for more complex cases and is just finishing a strategic plan to address some of the anticipated community needs, Sink said.
Some changes were inevitable with the switchover, such as more centralized services for human resources, for example. Former administrators are gone, due to retirement or job changes, Larchian said, although physician and non-doctor staff retention remain notably high.
He said a recent in-house survey of doctors found that more than half have been on staff for 20 years or more. At the Board of Directors’ annual dinners to recognize longtime employees, it is not uncommon to see several employees who have been on staff for decades.
“That is unheard of in most medical centers,” he said.
Donna Bally, Sink’s executive assistant, started volunteering as a candy striper at the hospital at 14. She started as a part-time employee in the kitchen, helping prepare patient food trays, at 16.
“I’ve spent almost my whole life here, 41 years,” Bally said. “I went from the kitchen to the executive office and I wouldn’t work anywhere else. The employees that work here, it’s like a family. In every department, our main purpose is to work for the patients, to serve the patients.”
The hospital is now more than 10 times the size it was in 1908 on the 4 acres purchased on East River Street. Then, it opened with 36 beds; it now has 387. The hospital also once housed its own nursing school, the M.B. Johnson School of Nursing.
More than a million patients are seen each year, counting laboratory and other tests. About 10,000 admissions and 80,000 emergency room visits are made every year. It employs about 1,300 staff members, and a medical staff of nearly 500 doctors and advanced practice providers.
Last year, it provided $18.4 million in community programs, health screenings and uncompensated care for those in need, Sink said.
The hospital will mark its anniversary today with a free luncheon for its employees 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. and 12:30 to 1:30 a.m. for third-shift workers. Free cupcakes will be delivered to the other UH area locations.
The Rev. Janet Long, who has served on hospital boards for 30 years and is now board chairman, said the hospital’s long history dictates its future — to continue to serve its community.
She notes its distinction for the Gates Hospital Center for Crippled Children, which was added to its campus by 1915. It was the embodiment of Edgar Allen, one of the town organizers who attended the first meeting to establish the hospital and two days later lost his own son in the streetcar crash.
The center was the first in the nation devoted to the care of crippled children, and Allen eventually started the Societies for Crippled Children, which became the Easter Seals Society in 1935. A state historical marker on the hospital campus relates his story.
Long noted that the Rotary Club of Elyria received the first grant from the International Rotary Foundation to benefit children with physical limitations, which led to Rotary’s worldwide mission to eradicate polio. In recent years, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has partnered with the international charity to achieve the elimination of the disease, she said.
“To think that Elyria’s Gates Hospital for Crippled Children eventually led to a major grant from the Gates Foundation means that our hospital is having a global impact,” Long said in an email. “I am honored to serve because the hospital is such a vital resource in our community, touching every life in one way or another at one time or another.”