A Heritage of Loving Service: The Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet in Tucson
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Heritage: The Story of St. Mary's Hospital, 1880-1980
By Leo G. Bryne and Sister Alberta Cammack, C.S.J

Chapter I Frontier Hospital
Early Expansion


Hospital around 1895 -- Convent, left, North Wing, center and Isolation Cottage right
Hospital around 1895 -- Convent, left, North Wing, center and Isolation Cottage right
[AHS #2,134 H24]

Almost at the same time, in 1893, Sister Fidelia McMahon was appointed as Superior of the hospital sisters and Superintendent of the hospital itself. She was to remain as the leader and chief executive of St. Mary's until 1920. In her long tenure office St. Mary's grew from a frontier hospital to a full-fledge medical institution. Though we have no written plan of action that she might have developed, we can judge from her accomplishments that from the start, she plunged in with all the talents of her quick and perceptive mind, First of all, she started immediate construction of a residence convent for the hospital sisters. With their growing numbers and round-the-clock schedules, it was neither practical nor reasonable for them to have to shuttle back and forth between the hospital building and whatever quarters were improvised for them in the hospital basement and in the adobe convent across the road which had recently been renovated to serve as an orphanage. Within the year, a two-story convent building joined the cluster of structure on the hospital grounds. It was a simple and sturdy building with a chapel and parlor along with several smaller rooms on the first floor, dormitories and washrooms on the second. Although city water for out side irrigation purposes had reached the hospital in 1892, there was no inside running water. The hospital's own well was serving for drinking and bathing needs. Although utility lines had not yet reached the hospital, the older buildings and the convent were wired for electricity when the convent was erected.

Sister Fidelia envisioned a modern and separate surgical area, too, and despite the impossibility of providing one immediately it is apparent that she did set aside a temporary space. Kitchen, dining, laundry and storage areas occupied the basement of the hospital itself; the Southern Pacific Wards and the count wards filled most of the first floor. It is conceivable floor where a maternity ward and nursery had been set up.

The demands for expansion and development were obvious and inescapable. One after another, plans and contracts flowed from Sister Fidelia's desk.

Foremost among the needs she faced. with a priority even more urgent than a surgical arena, was the proper care of patients with communicable diseases. Sometime between 1893 and 1900, an Isolation Cottage took its place in the complex -- a one-story structure of four large rooms, each of which had its own doorway to a broad veranda that extended around the perimeter. The capacity of this building was twenty-four beds. Gallons of lysol were consumed daily, and clothing, bedding, and bathing materials were often burned in severe cases, and along with them even some record charts were summarily deposited in the same fires, so great was the stress on antiseptic purity.

Doctor Hiram W. Fenner
Doctor Hiram W. Fenner
[AHS #29,346 H25]

An isolation area was essential in a general hospital, but it was no more than a small part of the financial burden assumed by Sister Fidelia. As railroad passenger service from the east and north became more comfortable and more regular, Tucson had begun to receive a large number of tubercular patients seeking the benefits of the climate and the clean air. It was becoming a problem to accommodate those who sought the medical facilities of the hospital. So the Isolation Cottage was built in the shadow, figuratively, of a much larger component, the Sanatorium. This building, a two-story circular structure surrounding an inner patio, was designed by Dr. Fenner to take continuous advantage of the sunshine. It had a shaded porch on the inside and outside circumference of each level. The individual patient rooms opened onto these porches and the doorways were large enough to allow the beds to be wheeled out for those patients who were not ambulatory. The facilities were coordinated to supply the best in current therapy for the widespread disease.

Operating Room in the New Surgery Suite
Operating Room in the New Surgery Suite
[AHS-BC #BD24,627 H26]

Once these needs were met, the next order of business was the long-awaited surgical unit or suite, as it came to be called. Since it was to include an emergency room, it was decided that it must be at ground level. In order to best serve all areas of the hospital, it was situated at the westward extremity of the original building and the North Wing. On either side of an interior hallway were the various operating rooms, sterilizing rooms, preparation rooms and a large emergency room. It was, according to contemporary descriptions, furnished with the most modern equipment available, "making it all the most exacting surgeon could demand."

The surgery suite was in operation in 1903, and Sister Fidelia then turned her attention to more prosaic matters. As delightful as the Tucson climate was and is, no one can ignore or deny the rigors of the summer heat -- certainly not a health care facility. Being a consummate realist, Sister Fidelia set about excavating a large chunk of hillside in order to build an ice-storage area that would take advantage of the terrain and be as impervious as possible to the rays of the summer sun. It was ingeniously designed with pipes running under the huge blocks of ice to provide a source of readily available icewater. Not only did this save the daily need for delivered ice, but it was a blessing for the patients.

To attack the other extreme of temperature, the next major outlay of funds was for the construction and installation of a steam heating system in 1906. The original heating plant installed at the time included cast iron radiators in the rooms of the three buildings that were served. Over the next twenty-five years, the needs and growth of the hospital complex led to a situation where there were five separate sources of heat scattered among the various buildings. Electric wiring, too, brought added efficiency as soon as electricity had reached the west side of town. The first electric bill, for the month of September, 1907, was $19.40.

View of hospital, farm buildings and fields about 1920
View of hospital, farm buildings and fields about 1920
[AHS #51,403 H27]

Continue with Chapter I Frontier Hospital The School of Nursing

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