Sunday, February 06, 2000

Closing door on Bethesda's 102 years

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        I don't know what I expected. A really big moving van? Maybe a trumpet playing “Taps”?

        Friday, Bethesda Oak Hospital closed. I parked inside the Winslow lot, hoping I'd have a chance to say goodbye to Hans Kroschke, who has been in the cashier's booth for as long as I can remember.

        I wander around, lost as usual. In the 1980s and early '90s, I was on the board of trustees of this hospital. But, still, I get lost here. Hospitals grow like amoeba — a wing here, a sub-basement there. I was always afraid I'd stumble into an operating room. Or, worse, the pathology lab.

Deaconess spirit
        When you're there as a patient, of course, you are wheeled around, the scenery is bright lights and ceilings.

        Twice I did that, too.

        Once I came home with a baby daughter. Another time I came home minus a breast. Everybody probably loves their doctors and nurses when they have a healthy baby. But I loved mine even when I was hurt and scared to death, fighting cancer. I remember a nurse tucking my hair under a paper cap, then patting my face. Is that part of what they teach them at nursing school?

        Jeff Blunt, a spokesman for Tri- Health, which runs Bethesda and Good Samaritan hospitals, says he thinks it's the “spirit of the deaconesses,” who founded Bethesda to serve Cincinnati's German population.

        From a 20-bed hospital at Reading Road and Oak Street purchased for $55,000, Bethesda grew to include two hospitals, a nursing school, a nationally known fertility clinic, a retirement home, a fitness center and one of Cincinnati's largest hospice organizations.

Nervous dad
        Still wandering, I found the place where my daughter, Meg, was born. Nancy DeFosse, in an employee publication, remembers the first dads in the delivery room:

        “The men had to change into scrubs. They put their clothing in a locker, but for security purposes we asked them to put their wallets in their socks. One especially nervous father-to-be walked out from the locker room decked out in scrubs, and in his hand dangled a sock with a wallet stuffed into the toe.”

        She quietly took the sock and put it in her pocket, not wanting to embarrass him. Well, of course she did. Nice people at this hospital.

        Very nice.

        “People who lived in the community viewed Oak as their hospital, in large part because of the friendliness and openness of the employees and members of the medical staff who worked there,” wrote Tom Wilburn in the newsletter.

        L. Thomas Wilburn Jr., former CEO of Bethesda Hospitals, forged the alliance between Bethesda and Good Samaritan in 1995. And he wrestled mightily with the changes in health care that battered hospitals all over the country.

        “We're losing money on every patient,” he said jokingly to me once. “But we're making it up in volume.” At its peak, Bethesda was a 450-bed facility with more than a thousand employees. One of them was Linnea Lose, a public relations specialist who went on to Drake Hospital and now has her own PR firm.

        She thinks the deaconesses would approve. “They were progressive, with-it women. They would have blessed this. The city was over-bedded. And these women could be tough when they needed to.”

        I wonder if the Bethesda Oak “deaconess spirit” is transferable. I hope so. Jeff Blunt says all but about a half-dozen employees were relocated to sister hospitals.

        As I muddled my way through the deserted hallways, I realized I was not looking for any beloved architectural detail. A fireplace. A chandelier. A pediment. I was looking for faces I'd recognize.

        I finally found one. On my way out of the hospital, I gave my 50 cents to Hans, who has been at Bethesda for 43 years. “Too quiet in there,” he said. “Right?”

        It was. But not as sad — not as final — as I'd expected. Because, as it turns out, the building was never the important thing. It was the people.

Laura Pulfer's column appears in the Enquirer on Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. E-mail her at or call 768-8393 or fax 768-8340. She can be heard Monday mornings on WVXU radio (91.7 FM), and as a regular commentator on National Public Radio's Morning Edition.