By Romi Carrell Wittman –
If you’re a lifelong Tucson resident, there’s a good chance you were born at Tucson Medical Center. Since its inception 70 years ago, more than 100,000 babies have been born at TMC. And last year, more babies were born there than at any other hospital in Southern Arizona.
But TMC does a lot more than deliver babies. It’s been a groundbreaking, nonprofit community hospital for nearly three-quarters of a century.
On Dec. 10, TMC held a birthday party of sorts on the patio of the hospital grounds. CEO Judy Rich addressed the group and spoke of the many remarkable events in the hospital’s history. Peter Erickson Godfrey, the first baby born at TMC, was on hand to celebrate.
TMC’s foundation was laid in the 1920s at the internationally renowned Desert Sanatorium. The privately owned facility was a famous tuberculosis treatment center and health retreat, attracting patients from around the world with its warm and dry desert climate. Over time, ownership of the facility transferred from Desert Sanatorium’s founder, Dr. Bernard Wyatt, to Anna and Alfred Erickson.
At the December event, Judy Rich commented on the uniqueness of TMC and how it was created. She said, “Anna (would eventually) donate the facility to the people of Tucson to create a new nonprofit community hospital. Isn’t that a great story?”
Tucsonans decry closure
In 1943, Anna closed the facility for the summer. Her husband had passed away and World War II was in full swing, meaning the critical resources necessary to keep the doors open were limited. Though the closure was temporary, Anna considered closing it permanently.
The public response was fast and emphatic – they wanted the facility to stay open. With St. Mary’s Hospital as the only other medical facility in town, they feared not enough medical care would be available for the growing population.
Their concerns resonated with Anna and she decreed that, if key goals could be met, she would give the community the land and the facility for a hospital.
Jerry Freund, who helped establish TMC’s education department in 1970, became TMC’s unofficial historian, a role he has kept even after retiring in 2001. “Anna was worried that this would be a band aid and wouldn’t solve the problem, which was why she set key goals,” he said. “The community then worked to raise the funds.”
Famed women’s rights advocate Margaret Sanger Slee was on the board and a major fundraiser, as was businessman and philanthropist Roy Drachman. Within two months they raised $250,000 from the business community, despite the war and stress of the times.
Anna’s five-year plan
Anna wanted assurances that the hospital would be open to all residents of the community and that physicians would be certified MDs. She gave them five years to be successful and, if they weren’t, she’d take it all back.
TMC admitted its first patient on Nov. 9, 1944, and the venture proved to be so successful that, at the end of five years, Anna gave them everything – the facility as well as the 160 acres on which it sat.
Anna lived on the property until her death in 1961 and it was Anna’s request that the hospital build out, not up. “She asked that her view not be blocked,” Freund said. “A lot of people think that height restriction is still in effect today, but it actually went away when Anna died.”
The field of medicine has changed dramatically since 1944 and TMC has played a role. While community hospitals are not typically known for research and development, TMC has been an innovator in several fields – always in response to a direct community need.
One example is Val Crain, a nurse who’s worked at TMC for more than 40 years. In 1975, the Tucson community was in need of a new, easier-to-administer stroke test. With the help of the John A. Hartford Foundation grant, her team was able to develop one. It became a nationally recognized exam for stroke prevention and remained the standard until imaging became widely available. “It was remarkable because community hospitals aren’t known for doing research,” Crain said. “But we needed to respond to a community need, so we did.”
TMC flourished under the leadership of Donald Shropshire, who was CEO from 1967 until 1992. “He emphasized that we’re here to care for patients at the blessing of the community,” Freund said.
Current CEO Judy Rich originally came on board as chief nursing officer in 2003 and quickly learned that TMC is a major force in the community. After a financially tumultuous period, during which the hospital was at risk of being bought out by a for-profit, out-of-state organization, Rich moved back to Tucson to take on the role of CEO.
Changing, but still the same
“The leadership and board of this hospital have always been driven by our mission to improve the health and well-being of the community,” Rich said. “I’m most proud of TMC’s commitment to its patients. It’s very sacred to be given the responsibility to care for another person and people have trusted us for many, many years.”
TMC continues to evolve to meet the changing needs of Southern Arizona. “We’ll always be making improvements to this campus,” Rich said. “But we have what we need in terms of size and access.” Above all, TMC has been successful because of its deep commitment to doing what’s right for the people of Tucson and Southern Arizona, she said. “It’s the reason we’re still here and still independent.”
Clearly, TMC has much to be proud of, but one has to wonder what Anna Erickson might think of the hospital today.
Freund thinks for a moment. “I think she’d be extremely pleased and proud of TMC, but she’d be disappointed with the parking garage in front of her beautiful view,” he said with a laugh.