Thursday, January 17, 2008

Mo Palmer: A sanitarium has evolved into Presbyterian Healthcare Services

by Mo Palmer

Albuquerque just celebrated its 300th birthday. Now it's time to look forward to another centennial.

In 1903, a sick man named Hugh A. Cooper was sent west, as were so many people, in the hopes that his tuberculosis infected lungs might heal.

"Go West, young man (or woman)," was a dreaded phrase, for it meant giving up home, career, family and friends for an unknown place where one might die alone in a strange land — if rest and climate failed to provide balm.

There was only one sanitarium in Albuquerque when he came, St. Joseph. In only its second year, it was already bulging at the seams, and lists of invalids waited to get a bed. A Methodist sanitarium wasn't yet even in anyone's dreams.

Cooper rented, rested, and restored his health. We aren't sure where he stayed, but he was one of the lucky ones who survived to help "grow the town." Soon he was pastor of First Presbyterian Church.

His first task was to replace the 1880s-era, teeny temple at Fifth and Silver with a uniquely beautiful, flat-faced, interesting church.

But the minister was unable to shake recurring visions of less fortunate patients who lived in tents and shacks — often without any treatment.

And so this man nagged the Presbyterian Synod (a governing body) to create another tuberculosis sanitarium here. And it did. Up on the barren sand hills on Central, between Downtown and the University of New Mexico, plumber and City Council member Henry Brockmeier had a cottage and some acreage.

With a mortgage, donations and some help from our Commercial Club, Southwestern Presbyterian Sanatorium opened in 1908.

Brockmeier repaired two-wheelers and so billed himself as a "bicycle doctor." Now, real doctors practice on his old homestead.

Cooper continued leading First Presbyterian. The prime political couple of the day, Clyde and Carrie Tingley, were married by him, in the pastorate at 115 South Walter Street. The historic house bit the dust years ago.

A bunch of buildings blossomed in the shadow of the remaining sand hills, which gradually flattened out as Oak, Gold, and other streets were cut through. Some of the leftover New Mexico sand and clay were used for adobe bricks.

Edifices were erected for a nurses' home — nurses lived on campus because they worked six, sometimes seven, days a week with only two afternoons off.

There were large multiple-patient dwellings, a service building with an elegant, sit-down dining room, small tent-top cottages and, eventually, the Maytag Research Laboratory and a small hospital.

You can see the Maytag Building, the last vestige of the old complex. Drive north on Oak from Coal to Central and look right — quickly. It's an elegant pink two-story that quietly expresses the formal architecture of days gone by.

There was a bridge-hallway that connected the infirmary to the main building — you could drive right under it when Mulberry Street was open.

Cooper died in 1934, but left his lifework in the capable, caring hands of Marion K. Van Devanter, "Mrs. Van." She came as a young woman to take her ailing fianc‚e, Jimmie, home to die, but the couple wound up marrying and staying on.

The high, dry desert air provided the young husband with a few more good years. After Jimmie passed, Marion devoted the rest of her life to the sanitarium — visiting patients, cleaning floors, raising funds, publishing a paper, washing linens, acting as executive secretary, admonishing administrators, nurturing children, and doing absolutely anything that was needed to help.

She was still making rounds when I was a patient in the early '80s — what a thrill and an honor. Made the misery tolerable.

Of course there was a board, directors, superintendents and so forth, but Mrs. Van was and is the soaring soul of this healing haven — despite having joined Jimmie in 1984.

Romances sometimes bloomed. Dick Corwine, who survived and became Presbyterian's first pharmacist, married another patient, Emily Hanna, and eventually moved his TB cottage to South Richmond Street, where it remains today.

Recently, I interviewed John and Vivian Doran. John came from Tennessee, got well, and met a gorgeous redhead who was visiting relatives at the sanitarium. They were married in the living room of "Old Main" because, John says, "our friends were to sick to attend at another location."

Mrs. Van arranged the shindig, from ceremony to cake, and even sang a hymn. John and Vivian just celebrated their 60th anniversary.

John taught middle school in uque for 35 years — what a wonderful way to give back to the community. Last month, we talked about antibiotics defeating tuberculosis after World War II. Presbyterian Sanatorium became — you guessed it — Presbyterian Hospital.

"The old must give way to the new," said Mrs. Van, and so it did. All the old fashioned, antiquated, and probably hazardous architectural wonders were razed, and new, state-of-the-art treatment towers took their places. Presbyterian persevered.

Today, Presbyterian is one of New Mexico's best-known health care institutions. Everything else has been merged, sold, closed, or irrevocably altered. I suspect the Sisters of Charity of St. Joseph and old Dr. William Randolph Lovelace are turning over in their graves. But Cooper and Mrs. Van can be proud of their legacy.

There will be centennial books and bashes to look forward to. Stay tuned.

In the meantime, Happy Birthday, Southwestern Presbyterian Sanatorium. Ya done good.

Originally published in The Albuquerque Tribune, January 17, 2008.
The Tribune articles are used with the permission of Scripps Howard.

Much more history of Presbyterian, by Mo Palmer, right here:

No comments:

Post a Comment