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Borderlands: Thomason Hospital Celebrates 90 Years 24 (2005-2006)

A unique resource of faculty edited college student articles on the history and culture of the El Paso, Juárez, and Southern New Mexico regions.

Thomason Hospital Celebrates 90 Years

Article first published in Vol.  24 (2005-2006)

I By Ruth Vise, Adri Alatorre, Juan Jose Adame and Kristi Smith

In the 1990s, Thomason General Hospital was twice named one of the top 100 hospitals in the country. Several of its physicians have been named to a list of the best doctors in the country over the past two decades. But this progressive hospital is the result of much hard work, the development of hospital districts in Texas and modern medicine. In 1915 when El Paso’s first public hospital was built, things were much different.

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Image caption:  El Paso County General Hospital was built in 1915.  The hospital that would be known as Thomason General Hospital was built in 1963.    Photo courtesy of Thomason General Hospital, Public Affairs Office

In El Paso’s early years, infectious patients were sent to a "pest house”, where they usually died. A two-story county hospital serving the poor was built in 1902 near Old Fort Bliss on Smelter Road. Leon Metz in El Paso Chronicles wrote that people who died upstairs were “lowered by rope from a window.” Private hospitals and sanatoria built in the 1890s and early 1900s took care of those who could pay, but the poor had little medical care other than folk cures.

In 1907, Dr. Hugh White led a group of physicians in planning a new county hospital. In 1915, a 100-bed facility costing $40,000 opened on land east of Washington Park. This was the beginning of Thomason Hospital. Named El Paso County General Hospital, this three-story facility actually had a resident doctor and nurse, but it left much to be desired, with little in the way of equipment and supplies. Volunteers staffed the hospital. In El Paso Chronicles , Metz wrote, “The manageably insane were locked in the basement. Tubercular patients sweltered in stifling, unventilated wooden shacks on the hospital periphery. The greatest single hospital expense was alfalfa for the cattle herds.”

In the next 15 years, El Paso experienced the 1918 flu epidemic and increasing numbers of tuberculosis victims coming from the Midwest and East for treatment in sunny, dry El Paso. In a short history of the hospital, Donna Munch wrote that “financial problems plagued El Paso County General, the level of care rising only a notch above that of the old hospital.”

In 1932, the facility expanded to offer 23 new beds and received a new name: El Paso City-County Hospital. The hospital was remodeled and further expanded to 204 beds in 1935 and included an operating room and sterilizing equipment. But with the Depression and World War II, the charity hospital continued to have financial problems. The level of care remained low, considering that untrained volunteers still staffed the place.

Bad as these conditions were, they were similar to most city-county hospitals around the country in those days, according to Dr. Russell Deter in a 1990 El Paso Herald Post article by Vic Kolenc. Deter volunteered his skills during the 1940s and 1950s and later was chief of surgery at the hospital. Kolenc wrote that Deter had to “scrounge around town” for surgical instruments. Deter said, “I operated out there with people walking around killing flies and bugs. … There was no air-conditioning system.”

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Judge Woodrow Bean said, “The old hospital had a smell like a butcher shop.” The sweltering heat added to the stench and attracted swarms of roaches, flies and ants. It became an undesirable place to work, and patient numbers decreased rapidly. The hospital’s name was changed to El Paso General Hospital in an attempt to increase business.

In 1953, the Texas legislature passed a bill that allowed the creation of hospital districts across the state, whereby a percentage of property taxes would be earmarked for county hospitals. El Paso voters approved such a district in 1958. Flyers supporting the measure included pictures of the dilapidated facility along with a question asking residents if they would like to be taken there in case of an accident. In 1959, El Pasoans approved a $3.7 million bond issue to build a 335- bed hospital. A state grant added $2.5 million to the project.

Thomason, a former El Paso mayor, congressman and federal judge, was well known for his dedicated public service.

In 1972, Thomason Hospital began an affiliation with the University of Texas at El Paso’s School of Nursing and the El Paso Community College for clinical training of its allied health students. In 1973, Texas Tech University established what is now known as its Health Sciences Center on the hospital’s grounds in El Paso and chose Thomason as its teaching hospital for third and fourth-year medical students. The hospital’s other affiliations include New Mexico State University, Sul Ross State University and several vocational health programs.

In 1986, Thomason’s emergency room was designated a Level 1 Trauma Center and continues to be the only one within 250 miles. Its certification means that it meets the strict standards set by the state of Texas and the American College of Surgeons for U. S. trauma centers.  It is the hospital designated by the White House to treat the president if he needs medical care while in this region.

Thomason delivers about one third of all babies born in El Paso yearly, and it is a regional referral center for high-risk pregnant women. Thomason also offers services in its clinics in Ysleta and Fabens, including special programs for asthmatics and diabetics. Another primary care clinic is located in Northeast El Paso. In addition to all usual services, Thomason has the only certified bilingual poison center in the nation. on.

Thomason Hospital was named one of America’s 100 Best Hospitals twice in the mid 1990s in studies by Mercer Health Care Consulting of New York and HCIA, Inc. of Boston and is the only El Paso hospital to earn this designation. The current issue of  El Paso Inside & Out magazine lists 11 staff physicians that have been recognized as “Best Doctors in America,” according to a survey done by physicians around the nation.  Healthcare Infomatics Magazine has named the hospital one of the most advanced computerized medical centers in the nation. This honor is given to hospitals that utilize the latest technology to aid in medical teaching practices.

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Thomason is the largest public hospital located on the U. S. /Mexico border and is located in the poorest city of its size in the country. In fiscal year 2004, local property owners paid $39.4 million in hospital district taxes. Over $151.6 million in charity care was given to uninsured and working poor patients in El Paso. Thomason is the only not-for-profit community-owned hospital in El Paso and is directed by an unpaid board of managers who are appointed by El Paso’s county judge and the Commissioners Court.

Margaret Althoff-Olivas, Director of Public Affairs at Thomason General, says that the hospital maintains a “no ask” policy when it comes to its patients’ ability to pay. By law, it is required to treat all patients. Before the hospital admits someone in a non-emergency situation, the hospital checks for residency by requiring the patient to provide a check stub or utility bill.

For 12 years, Pete Duarte served Thomason as its CEO, retiring in April 2004. It was during his tenure that so many of the hospital’s advances in care and technology occurred and were honored. Many changes are in store for the hospital in the next five to ten years, according to the newest CEO, James N. Valenti.

Valenti has launched an ad campaign in hopes of attracting prospective paying patients to Thomason and changing the idea that Thomason General is a hospital of last resort. Work has already begun on adding 40 private rooms. The hospital recently surveyed El Pasoans in order to find what improvements are necessary in raising the hospital’s profile. Among major complaints were long waits, overcrowding and appearance of the hospital. In an El Paso Times article, Valenti said, “The results show that we have a strong foundation to build on. The problems identified by the survey are fixable.”

In late May 2005, however, the Texas Legislature dealt the hospital, Texas Tech University and El Paso a big blow by failing to appropriate funds for the four-year medical school now being constructed at Alameda Avenue and Concepcion. Although money is available for the buildings, none exists for operations. This action may delay enrollment of the first four-year class tentatively planned for 2008.

Those driving through El Paso may have noticed billboards announcing the 90th anniversary of the city’s public hospital. It has come a long, long way, from a small wooden building with one doctor to the teaching hospital of a four-year medical school. Happy Birthday, Thomason General!

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