Critical Care: As Scripps Mercy Hospital celebrates 120 years, its connection to patients remains vital

By Dave Schwab
SDUN Reporter

Led by Sister Mary Michael Cummings, the Sisters of Mercy bought 10 acres in Hillcrest and then raised $5,200 to build a three-story hospital at Eighth Avenue and University Avenue in 1891 (above). St. Joseph's Sanitarium grew to include 220 rooms, a residence for the elderly and a training school for nurses. (Courtesy Scripps Mercy Hospital)

During 120 years of community service in Hillcrest, Scripps Mercy Hospital has changed its name and location, but never its commitment.

“It’s the special attention to everyone who walks through the door; dealing with people who don’t have a home to live in, yet they’re treated as respectfully as if they had a name on a building outside,” said Mercy Hospital Executive Director Mary Braunwarth about what makes the institution distinctive and has allowed it to survive all these years.

That type of patient service is what’s become known as the “Mercy style of care,” described by patients and loved ones as “a distinctive feeling” that sets the hospital apart from other health care facilities.

“The sisters, the physicians and the employees have a very strong bond with each other that inspires them to care for people mind, body and spirit,” said Sister JoCeal Young, who’s been with the hospital for 20 years. “It’s not just gall bladders: They’re really taking care of the person and their families.”

Young tells new medical residents just starting out at the Hillcrest hospital, “You’re here not just as a career – this is really a calling.”

Young said people tell her when they walk through the hospital’s front doors that there’s something – a sense of spirituality, care, concern and friendliness – that kind of “captures” them.

“People just feel cared for,” she said.

The Sisters of Mercy gathered in 1899 for this photo. Six years earlier they opened San Diego’s first home for senior citizens, while five years after the picture was taken they opened the city’s first nursing school. (Courtesy Scripps Mercy Hospital)

Mercy got its start thanks to the Sisters of Mercy, who opened the five-bed St. Joseph’s Dispensary above a men’s clothing store at the corner of Sixth Avenue and H Street (later Market) with a grand total of $50 in 1890.

Members of the Catholic nunnery are less numerous and visible today, though their role in “spiritually connecting” the hospital and the community remains vital.

“The sisters are very special to us,” said Lynn Silva, whose family has been intricately involved with Mercy – born there, worked there, worshiped there – for five generations. “Their level of care and concern is huge: It’s a very personal involvement, a very personal caring.”

Silva started out as a candy striper at the hospital at age 15, thinking she wanted to be a nurse. That avocation left. But her devotion to the institution remains.

“Most of what I’ve been doing is fundraising,” said Silva, who’s worked with the hospital auxiliary putting on the annual Mercy ball. “I love giving back.”

Begun 120 years ago as a small health care facility to meet the needs of a city of 16,000, founder Sister Mary Michael Cummings soon realized the dispensary’s need for more space. So she persuaded the religious order to purchase 10 acres in Hillcrest. She then raised $5,200 to build a three-story hospital in 1891. The new facility grew to include 220 rooms, a residence for the elderly and a training school for nurses.

Sister Young feels responsible as the steward of a long-standing Scripps Mercy Hospital tradition.

“Our purpose is to ensure the religious identity of our organization and the mission of the founding sisters going forward,” she said, adding the hospital’s goal of “treating everyone coming into the building, homeless or wealthy, with the very same compassion and quality of care and concern” will never change.

Mercy wouldn’t be the same without the sisters’ influence, Braunwarth acknowledged. She said everything possible is being done at the hospital “to make sure the (sisters’) mission of compassion and care for everyone, irrespective of their ability to pay or their level of education, is alive.”

“The sisters are getting older, and sadly, there will be a day when the sisters are not there physically,” Braunworth said. “We need to make sure the sisters’ spirit is alive. We’ve done that through how we hire our employees, how we’ve built our facility, the beautiful chapel that was funded philanthropically. Everyone, if they choose, can be touched by the mission.”

Hospital volunteer Silva was born at Scripps Mercy Hospital in 1948. Her mother was born there in 1921. All three of her children were born there, as was her granddaughter in November 2009. To her, the hospital is not an institution: It’s home.

“This is the only hospital to serve the downtown community, the Uptown community, through the generations,” she said. “The nuns and their care and love and helping our family … We’ll never be able to say thank you enough. There’s a chapel there … I feel next to God. It’s a special place.”

Silva is optimistic about Scripps Mercy Hospital’s future.

“I’m excited about the next 120 years and the next generations that will be involved there,” she said.

Scripps Mercy Hospital is hosting a community event on July 10 from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on the front lawn of the Hillcrest campus. Free food, music, health screenings, games for kids and gifts will be part of the event. For more information, go to Scripps Mercy Hospital is located at 4077 Fifth Ave.

Scripps Mercy Hospital, from 1890 to today

1890: Dr. R. B. Hurlbert performed in St. Joseph’s the first Cesarean section ever recorded on the Pacific Coast.

1891: St. Joseph’s Dispensary moved to the corner of Eighth Avenue and University Avenue and was renamed St. Joseph’s Sanitarium.

1893: St. Joseph’s opened San Diego’s first home for senior citizens.

1904: Newly renamed St. Joseph’s Hospital opened San Diego’s first training school for nurses, a three-year college that produced 1,550 graduates before closing in 1970.

1916: Anson P. Stephens willed to the Sisters of Mercy six acres of land, the current site of Scripps Mercy Hospital’s San Diego campus.

1916: The hospital’s first capital campaign raised $200,000.

1921: St. Joseph’s became the first hospital west of the Mississippi River to receive accreditation from the American College of Surgeons.

1924: Scripps founder Ellen Browning Scripps established the 44-bed Scripps Hospital and Scripps Metabolic Clinic on Prospect Street in La Jolla.

1924: Accompanying a name change to Mercy Hospital, a new six-story facility was built at its current location on the six acres of land willed to the Sisters of Mercy by Anson P. Stephens.

1925: A community-wide fundraising campaign raised money to build a north wing on the new hospital.

1926: The College of Nursing and Mercy Convent buildings were constructed adjacent to the hospital.

1926: Ellen Browning Scripps appeared on the cover of Time magazine because of the enormity of her philanthropic work in San Diego County.

1927: Mercy Hospital received $300,000 from John D. Spreckles to build the south wing, which was completed the following year, bringing the bed total to 325.

1944: At Our Lady of Guadalupe Catholic Church, a clinic opened that would later move and become Mercy Clinic.

1946: The American Medical Association approved Mercy Hospital’s new Graduate Medical Education program, which by 1949 would include residency programs in pathology, obstetrics, surgery, internal medicine, gynecology and anesthesiology.

1954: Mercy Auxiliary formed to recruit volunteers for Mercy Hospital and seek charitable donations.

1964: Offering 52 patient beds, Bay General Community Hospital opened on H Street in Chula Vista.

1966: Mercy Hospital opened an 11-story building at its current site on Fifth Avenue.

1971: A four-level tower was added to Bay General Community Hospital to house medical-surgical floors, increasing the size of the hospital to 159 beds.

1979: Mercy Hospital became San Diego’s first hospital-based paramedic station.

1984: Bay General Community Hospital changed its name to Bay Hospital Medical Center.

1984: The San Diego County Trauma System of six hospitals, including Mercy Hospital, was established to meet the region’s need for urgent care of traumatic injuries.

1986: Bay Hospital Medical Center became part of Scripps Health, and the name was changed to Scripps Memorial Hospital Chula Vista.

1989: The Family Birth Unit opened at Mercy Hospital.

1995: Mercy Hospital joined Scripps Health and was renamed Scripps Mercy Hospital.

1999: The Sisters of Mercy received the Garfield Human Relations Award from the American Jewish Committee for their support of Jewish doctors and patients throughout the hospital’s history.

2002: Mercy Gardens opened at Scripps Mercy Hospital to house AIDS/HIV patients.

2004: Scripps Memorial Hospital Chula Vista and Scripps Mercy Hospital consolidated operating licenses to become one Scripps Mercy Hospital with campuses in Chula Vista and Hillcrest.

2004: Scripps Mercy Hospital was named among the nation’s 100 Top Cardiovascular Hospitals by Solucient.

2007: Scripps Mercy Hospital acquired the da Vinci surgical robot, launching the Scripps Minimally Invasive Robotic Surgery Program and ushering the hospital into a new era in state-of-the-art medicine.

2009: In its 2009-10 “America’s Best Hospitals” issue, U.S. News & World Report ranked Scripps Mercy Hospital 38th in the nation for the treatment of respiratory disorders.

2010: On February 1, Scripps Mercy’s San Diego campus broke ground for a new emergency department and trauma center that will double the size of the existing facility (scheduled for completion in 2013).

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