Times Past

Dan Krieger: Doctor helped establish county’s role in caring for sick and dying

The man had an epileptic seizure and rolled into the fire, burning one of his hands to the bone. The accident happened during the Great Depression. The man was penniless and without a home. But there was our General Hospital.

The recent debate over health care should be a reminder to each of us about the precarious condition of living in any place or time. General hospitals were the 19th century’s response to health care. Throughout our land, there was a consensus that for the general good, county governments needed to intervene in the care of the sick and dying.

San Luis Obispo’s General Hospital survives as a group of buildings, but no longer serves as a full-service medical facility. But there were times when we couldn’t do without it.

America was a relatively young land when the Great Depression hit in the early 1930s.

Our nation lacked the infrastructure necessary to deal with the vast numbers of indigent persons whose desperation grew with the intensity and duration of the hard times.

The County Hospital, later General Hospital, was one of the few social agencies that existed in San Luis Obispo County prior to the Depression.

The first County Hospital in San Luis Obispo County was opened on Feb. 23, 1879. Poor sanitation and bacteria in the water supply made crippling illness and death common occurrences in the American West.

There were no health insurance plans. There was no Medicare or Social Security. There certainly wasn’t Medi-Cal to care for the medical needs of the poor.

There were burial societies like the Odd Fellows which would see to it that you got a decent burial if you were a member.

The Odd Fellows, Masons, Knights of Damian and Pithias and several groups associated with the Roman Catholic Church had homes for indigent members, but these tended to be located near the major population centers.

Woe to the poor and sick. You were on your own in San Luis Obispo County unless you had friends and family who could care for you.

By the 1870s, our community had become “too civilized” to stand by and watch a fellow human being die on the street. The county supervisors authorized payment be made to householders willing to care for indigent patients.

In 1874, Dr. W. W. Hays became alarmed over the costs of caring for the indigent in private homes. It was an increasing financial burden. He reported to the supervisors that the cost of caring for the indigent sick in 1878 had come to $4,166. Boarding them in private homes was costing $5 to $8 weekly.

Dr. Hays felt that patients could receive equal or better care in a county hospital. The supervisors agreed. On May 11, 1878, a 13-acre site was selected one mile from the center of town at Bishop and Johnson. It was purchased for $700.

H. S. Laird was awarded the contract to build a three-sectioned structure designed by master builder William Evans.

The total cost of labor and materials was $5,152.99.

The kitchen, boiler and furnishings were in place by January 1879. On Valentine’s Day 1879, the hospital admitted its first patient.

In June, Dr. Hays made his first report on operation of the new hospital. The average number of patients from February to June had been 12. The hospital had three employees. Food and supplies, not including salaries or medical fees, cost $4.75 per month per patient.

Dr. Hays kept costs low. He ordered all food weighed before it was turned over to the cook. But a tradition of public participation in health care had commenced.