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Miracle in the Mountains

A drive through the Sierra Nevada always assures spectacular views. But a journey through those same mountains to reach a hospital more than an hour away could be filled with tension. That was Lake Tahoe before Barton Memorial Hospital.

During the 1950s, Tahoe’s full-time population was estimated at just 100 households, though the influx of summer visitors could easily reach 5,000. Then the region began to grow. Tourism, professional services, the construction industry, and thriving casinos enticed newcomers and entrepreneurs. As more people settled in Tahoe, a community hospital became vital.

In 1958, Lawrence Janus, M.D., became the first physician to commit to year-round residency in Lake Tahoe. For a time, Dr. Janus was the sole physician through the long, cold winter and busy summer. Dr. Janus has shared stories of chasing 7-year-old Randy Butler through the woods to give him a flu shot; Randy ran out of the doctor’s office after seeing the needle.

At that time, patient payments were frequently based on the barter system. In 1957, when residents picked up their hammers to construct Tahoe Medical Clinic, funds came from a side of beef donated by Bill Barton and prepared by butcher Harvey Gross. And one night Dr. Janus returned home with a sewing machine for his wife in lieu of payment.

In late 1959, James Whitely, M.D., moved permanently to South Lake Tahoe. Whenever an accident occurred, the doctor used his own car, loaded with emergency equipment, sometimes escorted by the fire department or police. When people were injured at Desolation Wilderness, Dr. Whitely was flown in by helicopter. And when the outcome was unfortunate, Dr. Whitely and his wife Patricia even opened their home for grief support for those awaiting the Placerville coroner.

In those days, practicing medicine in Tahoe was no easy task. Doctors in Tahoe did not get much rest, and often had no backup physicians to assist.

Peter Irving, M.D., for example, who would later serve as the hospital’s first general surgeon, performed all his surgeries at Carson Hospital, located in Eagle Valley, until Barton opened. He shared the story of a young boy who needed an emergency appendectomy. Dr. Irving loaded the child into his Volkswagen Beetle and rushed to Carson City to perform surgery.

In the early days of Tahoe health care, doctors did what had to be done under dire circumstances. Acting as personal taxi drivers to distant hospitals was just part of the job. Though the pioneer days had passed, this was still frontier medicine.

Building the Case for a Hospital

Within a few years, five medical doctors and three doctors of osteopathy joined the Tahoe clinic staff. They delivered urgent health care, treated emergencies, and though the clinic was not designed for surgery, also performed tonsillectomies and last-minute deliveries. The clinic became the destination of choice for patients when emergencies prevented the long trip over two-lane Spooner Summit, the only pass linking Lake Tahoe to the greater Carson area.

Meanwhile, Dr. Whitely was building a case for a local hospital, and the community rallied in support. They realized that in serious and critical cases, the hospitals in Carson City and Placerville—each an hour or more from Lake Tahoe—were simply too far away.

According to patient records from 1959, 1,500 emergency visits to Carson Hospital were from South Lake Tahoe—nearly one-third of the hospital’s emergency room usage. From May 1959 to May 1960, Carson Hospital’s patient admissions from the South Shore totaled 467. Many lives were lost during transport to Placerville and Carson City. Emergencies, accidents, and even childbirth did not always have positive outcomes due to the long distance necessary to travel for services.

The need for a hospital was abundantly clear, but proponents still needed to sell the concept. Putting pen to paper, they presented their case: A hospital would provide 24-hour medical care; emergency care would be easily accessible; broken bones, infections, burns, and illnesses would be treated locally; blood infusions, anesthesia, laboratory tests, and X-rays would all be available; and business owners would benefit from fewer lost workdays among staff due to travel for treatments, diagnostic tests, and follow-up care. Although the opinion was not unanimous, most locals felt a modern hospital would be a valuable resource for the community.

By October 1960 the community was organized, serious, and committed to building a hospital at Lake Tahoe. Prominent business leader Lee DeLauer was selected to head the Hospital Organizing Committee. He and his 16-member Volunteer Incorporating Committee partnered to make the venture a success.

Research conducted by Gene Morrison, a businessman with a passion for the health of local residents, found that almost $600,000 in building funds was available from the federal and state governments. The caveat: Local fund-raising would have to pay for at least one-third of the total. No one thought the task would be easy, and some thought it would be nearly impossible. But “impossible” was not in the vocabulary of most Lake Tahoe residents.

Estimates showed the hospital project would cost more than $1 million. While Hill-Burton federal and state grants amounted to $598,010 (58.6 percent of the cost), the community fund-raising campaign would have to reach $422,011 in donations (41.4 percent) by February 8, 1962, just four months later, or South Tahoe would not be eligible for the funding for another decade. That deadline motivated the team to raise the money immediately.

Then, sisters Fay Ledbetter and Alva Barton stepped up with a parcel of farmland in an easily accessible area—the perfect site for a future hospital. The property was assessed at nearly $200,000. The fund-raising had officially started.

Voice of the People
The proposed Lake Tahoe Community Hospital was the topic of conversation in coffee shops, on Main Street, and at family dinner tables.

By October 1960, a chief of staff was appointed to be responsible for oversight of doctors. The resolution created open and dual staff privileges for the hospital consisting of physicians, surgeons, and other competent doctors.

The composition of the medical staff also was key to accreditation by the Joint Commission on Accreditation of Hospitals (JCAHO), which oversaw standards of care, processes, and accountability through tri-annual reviews. The hospital had to be operational for at least one year before it could be evaluated for accreditation by the Joint Commission.

It was time to draft and approve the articles of incorporation. The facility was recorded as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit hospital owned by the City of South Lake Tahoe.

The Planning Begins 

The pace quickened, and planning began in earnest. Three additional committees were created: the Bylaws Committee, with Chairman Leonard Robinson; the Building Committee, with Chairman Parvin E. Shaw; and the Fund Committee, with Chairman William T. Heseman.

In November, the bylaws were presented to a Citizens Committee for approval. The Barton Memorial Hospital Association was formed, and all individuals, businesses, and organizations that donated $200 to the fund drive were eligible to vote for the hospital board of directors. Members pledged $5 per month or more to join; for many donors, the commitment was based on 40 monthly pledges.

With board approval, the Building Committee appointed August W. Koenig as hospital consultant and architect to oversee the process, from starting discussions to opening day.

Meanwhile architectural plans were designed by respected hospital architect John Badgley of San Luis Obispo, Calif. Badgley’s design reflected the mountain environment with an alpine flair. Hospital size was set at 38 beds, or three beds per 1,000 residents, as suggested by the California Department of Public Health. The Incorporating Board also provided suggestions that would make the hospital expandable to 44 beds without additional construction. Rooms were planned for medical, surgical, pediatric, and maternity patients. Support services for dietary, housekeeping, maintenance, laboratory, and X-ray would also be housed within the hospital.

Under the direction of Lee DeLauer, fund-raising teams were created, each with a designated captain. George J. Wolf, C.P.A., was asked to serve as treasurer. Working under Fund Chairman Heseman were Walter Neal Olson, special gifts division chairman; Lloyd McBride, employees division chairman; Evelyn Heseman, employees division co-chairwoman; Robert W. Wood, absentee homeowners chairman; Glen D. Smith, public schools chairman; Henry Butler, business division chairman; Glenora Bigelow, business division co-chairwoman; and Robert O’Mahoney, clubs and organizations chairman who would later be joined by co-chairs Vic Gagni and Grace Schmidt. Residential oversight would fall to the Barton Memorial Hospital Women’s Auxiliary, provisionally led by Eleanor Gianotti.

The fund-raising kickoff, held at Harrah’s Club, was hosted by the Women’s Auxiliary with principal speaker Clifton Linville of Fresno Community Hospital. Badgley displayed his initial drawings. Fund Vice Chairman Dr. Vernon J. Wall, also president of the Lake Tahoe South Shore Chamber of Commerce, detailed the upcoming campaign. Public Relations Chairman William B. Ledbetter distributed campaign literature. Lt. B.B. Ball of the California Highway Patrol, who was in charge of the Lake Valley substation, affirmed the critical need for a local hospital. Calculations showed that if each person on the South Shore contributed $50 to the campaign, the financial goal could be reached. Campaign slogans included “The Life You Save May Be Your Own,” “In an Emergency, Will Death Wait?” and “If You Care, Do Your Share."

Gifts Large and Small
Heavenly Valley Ski Resort was the first business to pledge 100 percent participation on behalf of its five co-owners and 20 employees. Co-owner Chris Kuraisa pledged $3,000 to sponsor a precautionary nursery in memory of his son, Edward, who passed at a young age due to an accident. The managers and employees of Harvey’s Wagon Wheel dug deep to pledge a total of $91,692. The Rotary Club of South Lake Tahoe sponsored a patient room, and the Soroptimist International of South Lake Tahoe pledged to fund the admitting area. South Lake Tahoe Kiwanis members came in with a $2,000 memorial pledge. Safeway prided itself on 100 percent employee participation, which assured purchase of a $200 Barton Memorial Hospital Association membership. In January 1961, the owners, management, and employees of Harrah’s Casino donated an incredible $24,000. Public school teachers pledged $9,000 to sponsor the dining room. Even the tiny St. Theresa’s Parish school came up with donations totaling $50.10.

Creative fund-raising was at work. The first Lake Valley Firemen’s Association Ball divided its ticket proceeds (based on $1.25 per ticket) between the hospital drive and the firemen’s fund. Tahoe Valley Elementary School students raised $58 through a fashion and talent show. Girl Scout Troop 56 raised $20 through Christmas card sales. Local gas stations Orbit Stations and Tahoe Gasoline donated 10 cents per gallon of gas sold during a three-day sell-a-thon. The Tahoe Bowl bowling alley offered 15 cents off every line sold to the hospital campaign. Support came from all directions and in all sizes.

Support from outside communities brought more excitement—and more money. The San Francisco 49ers Cager basketball team, comprised of the 49ers’ professional football squad, came to Tahoe to compete against residents in a game coordinated by Bob Walker, South Tahoe High School basketball coach, with proceeds benefiting the campaign. Participating 49ers included Clyde Conner, R.C. Owens, Gordy Soltau, Bob St. Clair, Y.A. Tittle, and Billy Wilson. Hotel rooms for the players were donated to increase the contribution amount.

Crossing the Finish Line 
Under the leadership of Chairwoman Eleanor Gianotti and Provisional Vice Chairwoman Betty Gay, the Women’s Auxiliary—now officially known as the Barton Memorial Hospital Auxiliary—hosted fund-raising events including the Christmas Tree Festival and Cocktail Party, the Winter Wonderland Fashion Show and Luncheon, the Headdress Ball, bake sales (with $3.50 cupcakes), teas, auctions, brunches, and even a community wide stage play.

In January, the women created the Flying Squadron, making it easier than ever for community members to contribute. The group picked up and dropped off pledge cards and collected donations from residents, and raised more than $364,000 in less than three months. But the deadline to reach the $422,011 goal was just 13 days away. If hospital supporters did not meet that goal, all would be lost.

On February 1, campaigners got the miracle they needed. A gift of $82,000 upped the total funds to $473,988—beating the goal by $51,977. A hospital would now be a reality for South Lake Tahoe. This timely and generous gift came through a grant from the Max C. Fleischmann Foundation of Nevada. The foundation earmarked its support for the purchase of new equipment.

It was an exciting day for the people of the South Shore. But instead of stopping to cheer their success, they pressed on, continuing the momentum. Not one volunteer stopped fundraising until the February 8 deadline. By the end of February, the final amount pledged or received totaled $605,000. It grew to $607,522 by November 1962, when the campaign was effectively over. The board of directors set aside the overage for landscaping, street paving, utility installation, and other items.

Tragedy and Triumph

Barton Memorial Hospital opened for business on Saturday, November 23, 1963. Though it was a big event for Lake Tahoe, a national tragedy cast a pall over the celebration. The day before, on Friday, November 22, President John Fitzgerald Kennedy had been assassinated in Dallas. Despite the devastation, Barton Memorial Hospital opened as planned, taking the first steps of a long and exciting journey.