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As demolition looms, former BCH workers share stories from old hospital

January 25, 2018

The building that served as Beatrice’s hospital for more than 50 years is slated to come down this year to make way for a new housing development, taking with it decades of memories from staff and patients of Beatrice Community Hospital and Health Center.

The building’s days are numbered as crews remove asbestos before the final demolition.

Before it’s gone, four former hospital employees, with 191 years of combined experience, gathered to share memories from the hospital and changes in health care.

The primary building at 10th and Arthur streets was built in 1957, while the east wing was added in 1971. At that time, it was a state of the art facility.

“When I came in 1966, I don’t think you could have found a nicer building,” said Karen Wiebe, a former house supervisor at the hospital. “I thought the other day, how nice those patient rooms were set up. You had two people to a room and each one had a nice large window they could look out all day long. They could see each other and had a curtain they could pull in between if they wanted privacy and shared a bathroom with a sink. It couldn’t have been set up nicer.”

Wiebe began at the hospital as a surgical nurse and retired in 2012, after the last patient was moved from the building to the new hospital, located north of Beatrice on Highway 77.

The current facility was built with out-patient care in mind, where guests seldom spend more than a couple of days in the hospital.

Dorothy Zimmerman, who was an assistant administrator and compliance officer at BCH from 1969-2008, said the vacated building was set up for in-patient care, when it was common for patients to spend weeks in a hospital bed.

“I think with everything, there comes a point at which you try and figure out all sorts of ways to make an efficient, modern hospital, and it doesn’t work,” she said. “Finally, you just say ‘OK, we’re going to have to look elsewhere.’ In order to move on and become an excellent healthcare facility, the building had to go. The building was designed for in-patient care back in the mid-50s. That’s all we had and to try and put that into an out-patient facility with a few acute beds just doesn’t work.”

Healthcare when the former building opened looked much different than it does today. There were many more exploratory surgeries before MRIs and CT scans were available.

The emergency room wasn’t staffed 24 hours a day, and patients had to ring a bell to get into the hospital. Workers would call around to different doctors trying to find one who was available, sometimes with no luck.

“I remember one time I was in tears because I had a patient who came in with a high fever and he was so sick,” Wiebe recalled. “He didn’t have a doctor in town and I called every office and every office said no. Finally, I went to the director of nurses with tears and said ‘I have to do something with this patient.’ We finally did get one doctor to see him.”

Men were not allowed in labor and delivery rooms in this era, to prevent the spread of germs, though nurses rarely wore gloves. They also reused needles and nearly everything else.

That changed when the AIDS crisis struck in the 1980s.

“That changed the whole course of how we did things in the hospital,” Zimmerman said. “We started using gloves for absolutely everything we did. Now, you don’t do anything without putting on a pair of gloves. Back then, it was expensive so only surgery got them. Then you reused them because you didn’t have the money to buy new.”

It was around the same time that Letha Hamm, who began at the hospital in 1957, was one of the first to venture into the world of home healthcare in 1984.

“I would never have gone to home care,” she recalled. “That was way too boring, but when I started in home health was when we started doing IVs in the home. I didn’t want to lose my IV abilities, so I got the first IV patient that we did in a home.

“In the hospital, if you couldn’t get it in, you had other people you could call, but once you’re in a home by yourself, you had to do this on your own. It gave you a strange feeling because there was nobody to call next door.”

The workers agreed the 1980s were a turning point in healthcare. In addition to new services being provided, workers also started to see the introduction of computers.

Today, nearly everything is done on computers, but for workers who were trained to log everything by hand, it was a difficult transition.

“You’re taught how to document what you’re doing for a patient in a certain fashion,” Zimmerman said. “Well, how do you take that and translate it into a computer where repetitive types of things become a check mark? There was a whole different way you had to think about it. Now for nurses coming out today, it’s no big deal. For nurses who were trained in hand-writing documentation, it was a difficult transition.”

Another big change of the decade came in around 1987, Zimmerman said, when Medicare changed how hospitals were reimbursed.

“They had paid how many days and what you had done,” she explained. “Now, they said if you come in and have your appendix taken out, we will give you $1,000. If you spend $2,000, that’s tough. If you spend $500, you keep the money.”

With the 1990s came HIPAA privacy regulations, which changed Kathy Epp’s daily routine. She began at the hospital in 1957 and spent much of her time as part of the administrative staff.

Her early routine including preparing a report of people admitted to the hospital and new babies for the newspaper to publish and radio to broadcast.

“Up until HIPAA came in the early 90s, we would do that,” she said. “We would have some patients who said they didn’t want their name in the paper and we did respect that, but every morning, we would have our list. It was interesting.”

On one memorable New Year’s Eve, the staff gathered at the hospital to usher in the 2000s. Today, they laugh about the Y2K scare, but were concerned at the time that their equipment would crash.

“Everybody was in the hospital that night because we had no idea what was going to happen,” Zimmerman said. “We had no idea if the lab instrumentation was going to work.”

The four longtime employees have countless memories that originated from the old hospital, some good and some bad.

And while the coming demolition closes the book on an era of healthcare in Beatrice, Wiebe said some things will never change.

“If those walls could talk,” she said. “I’m going to drive by there and it won’t look right… After all these years, there are changes. You have different things to use, but it’s still the same. The patient is still the patient. You’re still the one delivering care. You’re still the one doing the best you can with what you have available.”