(This article is part of Virginia Gay Hospital’s bi-annual publication, “Thrive” Spring/Summer 2017 issue. Online version can be found at https://myvgh.org/thrive/)
Because people inevitably suffer from illness or are injured, the need for hospitals never disappears, but the money to operate them sometimes does. Since 2010 the U.S. has lost 80 rural hospitals. In 2016 there were 21 hospitals that ceased providing inpatient services, though a few of that number still provide outpatient or emergency care.
Throughout its history, the relationship between Virginia Gay Hospital and families working the land has saved the hospital more than once.
Virginia Gay Hospital opened in 1923 with the founding gift made by Mrs. Virginia Walcutt Gay. It closed in 1925 for lack of funds. It reopened in 1927 with $3,361 in donations from the Federated Women’s Clubs of Vinton. In 1932, during the Great Depression, the hospital was once again in danger of closing.
Keith Elwick recently shared how he came to be involved in supporting Virginia Gay Hospital long before he enjoyed success with Hawk-Bilt and eventually served as a Virginia Gay Hospital board member.
“Our first experience with Virginia Gay was when our first baby was going to be born,” Keith says. “None of us had been born in a hospital so this was going to be something completely new. Janet came into the hospital ready to deliver baby Jean, and like they did in those days, the husband was shoved out the door and I left thinking everything was fine.”
“Janet’s Aunt Ruth and a woman by the name of Nettie Burk ran the hospital and did the best they could without much to work with. It was a day later when Aunt Ruth came by while I was doing chores to tell me things weren’t going well. I’ll never forget her saying, “We don’t think the baby will live till morning and Dr. Koontz would like to call in a specialist.”
The specialist got to the hospital from Cedar Rapids at 9:00 that night.
“It takes a lot of courage to be a doctor.” — Keith Elwick writing of Jean’s birth in his book, “That’s The Way It Was”
The specialist told Dr. Koontz and Keith that he thought there had been brain damage because Jean had been born breach. He also told them that even though surgery would result in some additional brain damage, he would still recommend it.
Keith finished the story of the specialist by sharing, “I remember real clearly Dr. Koontz standing up and saying, ‘Well, I guess we’re not doing that,’ and he sent the specialist on his way.”
“Dr. Koontz told Janet’s aunt to take the baby out of the nursery, to put her on the front desk where everyone walked by, and for everyone who went by to tickle her feet,” says Keith. “That was his solution for keeping a good eye on how Jean was doing. It wasn’t but a couple of days later that Jean started taking a little nourishment and, of course, she grew up to be just fine.”
That was Keith’s first experience with Virginia Gay, and from then on he says the hospital has always been on a pretty high platform.
“There was a period of time when the hospital was really struggling again. That’s when Emory Williams came by our place. I really admired Emory for being a great guy and a great farmer. He told me Virginia Gay was going to try raising some money to keep the hospital open, and if the farmers didn’t help, the hospital wouldn’t make it.”
… families working the land have saved the hospital more than once …
Emory told Keith he wanted every farmer in Benton County to be given the chance to invest a little in Virginia Gay. Would Keith canvass every farm in Taylor Township on the north side of the river to make sure everyone was contacted?
“I didn’t think I’d be very good at it, and I probably wasn’t, but I said I would do it and I did,” Keith says.
The third brush with closure started in the early 1980’s. This time Keith was a member of the Virginia Gay Hospital Board.
“We owe so much to George Garwood who was the hospital administrator from 1952 until his retirement in 1982,” says Keith. “George was a registered nurse so it wasn’t beyond George to jump in and help when they were short-staffed. There wasn’t anything George wouldn’t do for the hospital, including plowing the streets with his old jeep and raising substantial donations long before there was the Virginia Gay Hospital Health Care Foundation.”
“Due to stiff regulations we couldn’t meet, the board entered into an administration and support services agreement with a much larger hospital in 1982. We started the relationship in reasonably good financial condition, but at the end of 10 years the hospital had lost $2.5 million,” Keith explains. “We were working to make certain the land gifts wouldn’t be lost if Virginia Gay was closed or taken over when two young guys stepped up to say that with the board’s support, they thought Virginia Gay could remain under local control because of the value of the land that had been given. Those two young guys were Dr. Brian Meeker and the recently-hired CFO named Mike Riege, who was just out of the Marines.”
“I hope,” Keith says with heartfelt humility, “that along with all the others who’ve done much more, Janet and I have played a small part in helping Virginia Gay continue helping other families, just as the hospital helped ours.”
For additional news and information on Virginia Gay Hospital, visit www.myvgh.org and for additional information about the Virginia Gay Hospital Health Care Foundation, please visit www.myvghfoundation.org.