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Saturday, October 15, 2016

City’s first emergency hospital emerges

DEAN SHALHOUP

Toward the end of January 1899, an unknown Nashua Telegraph writer took on the job of describing Nashua's new emergency hospital and left no superlative unturned.

To say the turn-of-the-20th-century scribe waxed poetic as the writer took the reader from room to room and up the stairs and down again would be a woeful understatement. ...

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Toward the end of January 1899, an unknown Nashua Telegraph writer took on the job of describing Nashua's new emergency hospital and left no superlative unturned.

To say the turn-of-the-20th-century scribe waxed poetic as the writer took the reader from room to room and up the stairs and down again would be a woeful understatement.

Consider: "One can hardly realize the amount of work that has been necessary to make the old Blunt estate ready for hospital use and yet, it has all been done so well and so quietly that few people know how much has been accomplished."

I couldn't find any other reference to the "Blunt estate" - the location was typically referred to as the Hall property, which was the corner of Prospect and Dearborn streets, the spot where the fledgling hospital took root and grew over the decades to today's multi-building campus.

I sat down recently with several people long connected to Southern New Hampshire Medical Center and departed awash in fascinating little tidbits provided by a couple of employees whose combined tenure at SNHMC approaches 100 years - and a couple of physicians who patiently explained to me the hospital's late 20th- and 21st-century evolution.

So I sized up the volume of information before me, and - as I'm wont to do on occasion - decided I'd break it into two columns, exploring with today's essay the hospital's birth and formative years, then sharing the words of my interviewees a bit later this fall.

As part of marking its 125th anniversary, the hospital has published an update to its 2007 history book "Southern New Hampshire Medical Center: A Higher Level of Care Since 1891" and paid tribute to the members of its "Quarter Century Club," comprising current employees who have worked at the hospital for 25 or more years.

Impressively, the club's membership is up to 160 - topped by Ann McLaughlin French, a patient registration associate who marked her 50th employment anniversary Sept. 16.

I interviewed French, along with radiology technician Elaine Lavallee, who is closing in on that 50th-year anniversary; you'll want to read about their recollections in the next column.

That Telegraph story from 1899 ran about a week before the Feb. 2, 1899, grand opening of the 2½-story, 25-bed, Colonial-style Hall house, renovated and decorated "with much skill and care in execution ... the delicate tinting being exquisite," gushed our ancestral reporter.

The room-by-room descriptions are something to behold. Several local women's civic clubs each "sponsored" a private room, which its members decorated and appointed ahead of the grand opening.

The Nashaway Women's Club was in charge of a second-floor room: "The walls have a straw tint ... the ceiling a shade between ivory and cream ... woodwork done with a great show of taste.

"As the sun streamed into the room it seemed indeed a pleasant place. Lucky is the patient who gets this bright and cheerful nook. The ladies ... have expanded a great many long hours in good, hard labor for sweet charity's sake and the results are evident at every turn."

Goodness. Almost makes me wish I'd been around and gotten sick in 1899.

I'm sure it was quite the improvement over what sick Nashuans had to deal with up until then: The first building that was referred to as a hospital was actually a "pest house," a tenement near Main and Water streets for folks with contagious diseases.

The city, in 1867, built another pest house at the old Poor Farm - today's Nashua Country Club site. When it admitted two families with smallpox in the winter of 1879-80, the city took down the "Pest House" sign and replaced it with one reading "City Hospital."

Not surprisingly, Nashua's growing medical community wasn't happy with the lack of a modern facility. So in 1891 - the year the hospital considers its official founding - they banded together, formed the Nashua Hospital Association, and "prevailed upon the authorities to set aside a room in the basement of the Police Station as an 'emergency hospital,' " according to SNHMC's history.

Although it was "cramped" and the "equipment was meager in the extreme," the doctors made it work. If nothing else, it proved Nashua needed a "real" hospital, the ball for which got rolling just two years later, when the association voted to rent the old Collins house on Spring Street for $360 a year.

Nashua outgrew that almost as fast as it was occupied, setting the stage for the purchase in 1898 of the Hall property.

The first incarnation of the Southern New Hampshire Medical Center we know today was born.

Dean Shalhoup's column appears Saturdays in The Telegraph. He can be reached at 594-6443, dshalhoup@nashuatelegraph.com or @Telegraph_DeanS.