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
The participation of the doctors, both in the planning and academic standards of the school, indicates a great degree of professional idealism on the part of the local physicians in these early years of the twentieth century. They were just as concerned, too, about their own competency as they were about nursing standards. Concurrently with the inauguration of the Nursing School, the doctors began the preliminaries of establishing the rules and standards of a modern medical staff. It would have come sooner or later in the ordinary course of events, but a near disaster probably provided a practical impetus to its realization. Barely three weeks after the Nursing School opened, there was a major flood in Tucson. The Santa Cruz River was transformed into a torrent that rampaged the West side of town and cut it off from the rest of the city. As far as St. Mary's Hospital was concerned, only the foresight of one of the local physicians, Dr. Charles Schrader, prevented what might have become a desperate situation. As the flood waters rose during the day of December 23, he all but ordered his associate, Dr. Samuel Townsend, to get across the river to the hospital so that there would be at least one doctor on hand should the hospital be cut off. The St. Mary's Road Bridge was already gone, and the Congress Street Bridge was going. Dr. Townsend made his way across a 1' X 12' plank serving as a bridge to begin a three-day stay as the "house" doctor!
It is safe to assume, certainly, that the near-miss was among the motivating factors that galvanized formal planning for normal procedures and for unexpected contingencies. At any rate, the medical staff was officially constituted in its first meeting on February 16, 1917, and among the items discussed was the question of "hiring a laboratory worker." The subject of, a clinical laboratory was brought up again on February 23, and this time, a committee was appointed -- Eye, Ear, Nose, Throat and Lab -- with Drs. Schnabel and Thomas on the working end of the study assignment. At the third meeting on March 9, Credentials Committee was established to govern the admission of newcomers to the staff.
The recurrence of the laboratory question in these early meetings of the staff was due not only to the desirability of having a facility for whatever pathological techniques were available in the contemporary state of the art but to the fact that the doctors knew there was someone on hand who could do the testing. That individual was Sister Evangelista, the Assistant Director of the Nursing School. She was a progressive perfectionist not only in regard to technical excellence of nursing education but in regard to hospital procedures as well. It is not surprising that she responded eagerly to the idea of a clinical lab -- and she found space in the school to set one up. The increasing importance of pathological investigation in diagnosis directly benefited doctors and patients. The additional training for student nurses was an obvious by-product.
Sister Evangelista's influence in Arizona quickly reached out beyond the confines of the institution she served in Tucson. She knew the essential ingredient that nursing care added to the practice of medicine. She was convinced, too, that pride in one's profession and the sense of dignity accorded to that profession by society were equally necessary to maintaining standards of efficiency and that, without them, the best academic training in the world would not sustain the profession with the passage of time. She had a personal, as well as professional, interest in fostering this recognition; her first graduates -- she had become Director of Nursing School on the untimely death of Sister Francis de Sales in June of 1917 - began their nursing careers without the benefit or protection of licensing or registration of any kind by the young State of Arizona. The lack of recognition was a situation she set out to correct.
Although administration of the School, teaching duties, and laboratory work occupied her days, she nonetheless found time to be an activist for professionalism. In December of 1918, she called a meeting of all graduate nurses in the Tucson area to discuss the matter of a professional organization. Within a year the Arizona State Nurses Association was a reality and Sister Evangelista joined actively in the campaign to establish a statewide certifying board. The Fifth Arizona Legislature, on June 9, 1921, passed an act empowering the Governor to appoint a State Board of Nursing Examiners. The Governor, Thomas Campbell, appointed Sister Evangelista as a charter member of the Board. She was further honored by being licensed as R.N. No. 1 of the State of Arizona. During her repeated terms of office on the State Board, she had the added pleasure of seeing registration numbers in the hundreds given to graduates of St. Mary's.
Meanwhile, Sister Fidelia McMahon continued the unending work of maintaining and upgrading the physical plant and patient care at the hospital. Medical Staff records show that a motion to buy a "Wrappler Table and Hydrogen Tube" was carried at a meeting on October 12, 1917. In a few months, the X-ray Department was established in a little room off the lobby in the North Wing. Sister Fidelia had seen an amazing quarter century at St. Mary's -- from a frontier hospital to a modern institution serving a growing community that was a major center of a new state of the Union. The nation itself had joined the circle of "world powers" and was engaged in a miserable war that engulfed all of Europe. Though few realized it at the time, the era of political isolation for the nation, the state, and the city had come to an end. So, too, had Sister Fidelia's tenure of leadership at St. Mary's. Her successive reappointments as head of the hospital ended in 1920, and she departed for an assignment in Los Angeles where she died in 1923. Tucson had lost a valuable executive and a "good neighbor".
Progress never occurs "cost free." There is an inevitable toll that must be paid. It may be financial; it is always human -- in terms of exhaustion, sacrifice, bruised sensibilities -- a score of possibilities. The unceasing expansion of physical plant, the additional support services, both technical and prosaic, left St. Mary's in an uncomfortable degree of debt as the decade of the 1920's began. Sister Vincentia (1920-1923), Sister Fidelia's immediate successor, bent her efforts toward maintaining liquidity, but even she, in her short three-year term, had to spend several thousand dollars for a new laundry facility -- outside the basement of the North Wing where it had been housed -- in a new building adjacent to the boiler house. The significance of this improvement lies not so much in the improvement itself as in the realization that it had long been postponed in favor of other needs. It could be postponed only because the Sisters, both of the nursing and service staffs, had long been rising extra early on "laundry" days to do the job before the regular hospital day began!
Continue with Chapter I Frontier Hospital The Convent