Editor’s Note: This the first in a three-part series about CHI St. Joseph’s Hospital and Health Center, chronicling the hospital’s history and future as it transitions into its new facility next month.
Dr. Harlan Larsen likes to say that he started at St. Joseph’s Hospital in 1924.
“I was born there,” he said on a recent Friday at his quiet home in Hawks Point. Then, after a pause: “That’s just a little private joke.”
In reality, it wasn’t until a couple of decades later that the physician, now 90, began what would be an almost 55-year career that spanned some of the most pivotal times for both the hospital and the community around it.
CHI St. Joseph’s Hospital and Health Center, which served the region for more than 100 years, begins a new era of health care in December when it moves into its new facility on the western edge of the city. Though it is the end of an era for the current hospital, Larson and others recently shared the history they’ve witnessed in the building that stands on a hill in the center of Dickinson.
After graduating in 1948 from the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences, Larsen returned to his native Dickinson to practice with the old Rodgers and Gumper Clinic at what was then Service Drug, now home to the Brickhouse Bar and Grille. Sims and Villard formed the heart of health care in Dickinson then: The practice shared the space with a dental office, and just down the street was the Dickinson Clinic.
“All of the activity was kind of in that block,” Larsen said.
Larsen is retired now, and has been for more than 10 years; he’s one of a handful of what his longtime colleague and friend Dr. Dennis Wolf calls “old timers,” ones who cared for the community in a different age of medicine.
The clinic moved to its current location, now the Great Plains Clinic, in the early 1950s; Larsen and Wolf began working together when Wolf joined the practice in 1966, shortly after the $4.4 million remodel of the hospital.
Back then, clinics provided a majority of services. Larsen and Wolf, both family physicians, worked in a time when the field was less highly specialized than it is today.
In addition to seeing his regular patients, “I did surgery as well,” Larsen said. “I did obstetrics, I did pediatrics. And we did our own Cesarean sections. It was whatever you felt capable of.”
It wasn’t until 1983 that St. Joseph’s would even have a designated emergency room.
“So we had to serve as emergency room physicians as well,” Larsen remembers. “Sometimes we didn’t enjoy much rest, let’s put it that way.”
‘Meeting the Needs of the Times’ A lot has changed in health care since Larsen’s and Wolf’s era, before it was common for hospitals to have their own clinics.
“In those days, family practice doctors did everything. They delivered babies, they took out tonsils, they did your appendectomy. They did everything,” said Bev Ferderer, administrative services coordinator at Catholic Health Initiatives, who joined the hospital in 1984. “If you came in and you were sick, they took care of it.”
“Some of them worked 24 hours a day,” said Janis Gartner, a recently retired registered nurse who worked at the hospital from 1962 until 2013.
Now, the St. Joseph’s network includes a medical clinic, women’s clinic, surgical care clinic and the Dakota Bone and Joint Clinic. Medicine is more specialized, more high-tech. But when the Catholic health system came to Dickinson in 1911, St. Joseph’s Hospital was 40 rooms and not much else.
Gartner, Ferderer and operations engineer Dennis Zastoupil, who joined St. Joseph’s in 1988, recently walked into a room crowded with moving boxes ahead of the next week’s move to the new location on the west side of town. As they did, they looked back at the hospital’s legacy, more than a century in the making.
The three are the hospital’s de facto historians; Ferderer helps maintain a long-running diary of highlights in the hospital’s history. They can recall the days when smoking was allowed in the hospital, and when - during the peak of a season - patients were sometimes kept in hallways and auditoriums. They remember when on-call doctors had to take a horse in to work, and when physicians still made house calls.
“It was very personal medicine back then,” Ferderer said. “They took what they did very seriously, and they took care of their patients.”
In 1910, a committee organized a drive to establish the area’s first hospital and turned to then-Bishop Vincent Wehrle of Bismarck for assistance. Wehrle agreed to help fund and build the original $100,000 St. Joseph’s on what was then the outskirts of the city, several blocks away from the train terminal.
At the time, the entire population of North Dakota was just 584,000.
“It would be great to have a doctor, let alone a hospital,” said Dennis Cannon, vice president of mission and support services at St. Joseph’s, referring to Dickinson in the early 1900s. It was “a frontier country” then, he added.
The presence of the hospital helped support the community and draw in new residents, Cannon said.
“I can’t imagine it’d be too different than today,” he said. “In our community, the hospital and the university and organizations like that make it a real solid place.”
By early 1912, the largely Catholic community had a hospital - but what it didn’t have was the staff to man the facility.
That March, just months after the hospital was completed, six nuns from the Sisters of Mercy of the Holy Cross in Ingenbohl, Switzerland, made the trip to Dickinson at the urging of Bishop Wehrle. Sisters Lauda, Clementine, Philiberta, Richardis, Secundia and Auxentia arrived speaking no English and little support to run what the hospital’s historical diary calls “a shell for a hospital.”
“In 1912, this was a pretty remote area,” Cannon said.
Many of the Sisters were barely in their 20s; they came to Dickinson understanding that they would likely never see their families or country again.
“I’m most impressed by how young they were, and how much they gave up,” Cannon said.
The Sisters’ motto: “Meeting the Needs of the Times.” They took a facility saddled by debt and lacking resources - no electricity, no elevator and no operating equipment - and turned it into a center that has helped sustain the community for more than a century through both the booms and the busts.
There were more hospitals back then. But as health care costs grew and it became too expensive to sustain, St. Joseph’s became the go-to facility for southwest North Dakota.
Progress was slow but consistent, by all accounts. Boosted by community societies and fraternal orders, the hospital shed its debt and began to grow. By 1924 - the year Larsen was born - the hospital received its first X-ray machine. By 1931, the facility had expanded to second and third floors, followed by another expansion in 1950 and a remodel in 1966. Home health services and a special care unit came in 1979; an audiology department started in 1981, and satellite clinics followed a decade later. Along with an $8.9 million expansion in 1983, St. Joseph’s also took on a new name: St. Joseph’s Hospital and Health Center.
Today, nothing remains of the old hospital, but its original mission, and a legacy started by the Sisters.
“They always tried to help the community,” Zastoupil said, “as best as they could.”
What’s to come When ground broke on the new CHI St. Joseph’s Health facility on Oct. 5, 2012, it marked almost exactly 100 years since the Catholic health system admitted its first patient into the old hospital on a hill near the center of the city.
Countless patients, 44,000 births, numerous additions and remodels, and hundreds of administrators, doctors and nurses later, the facility at Seventh Street and Second Avenue West will bow out next week to the new, state-of-the-art facility located just north of Fairway Street, which by many accounts represents an entirely new era of medicine.
“We’ve had a rewarding practice, both of us,” said Wolf, who retired this summer after 47 years with Great Plains Clinic and St. Joseph’s. “We worked hard in those days.”
Larsen said he had an inkling of what was coming before plans for the new hospital were announced several years ago. He saw the flurry of people “rushing around buying mineral rights” in the early 1950s.
“I thought we might have something going here,” Larsen said. “But I didn’t visualize the enormous growth that we have experienced here.”
Administrators conducted a private tour of the new facility for long-time faculty and staff earlier this month, showcasing a hospital that has essentially been more than 100 years in the making. Gone are the days of long patient stays. The hospital received critical access designation in 2009, and the new facility will downsize to just 25 beds designed primarily for quick stays and outpatient services. Located against the yet-to-be-developed backdrop of Interstate 94 and the sprawling plains, it is, as Rep. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D., called it at a blessing ceremony held early November, a “hospital on the prairie.”
Wolf took his own tour recently and said he told the administrator, “I wished I was 40 years younger.
“It’s a beautiful facility.”
Faulx is a reporter with The Press. Contact her at 701-456-1207.