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Whidbey women sparked first hospital drive
More than 50 years ago, 20 women formed a guild on North Whidbey with the goal of building the island’s first hospital.
It took approximately 13 years for their efforts to pay off with the opening of Whidbey General Hospital in 1970, providing a closer option for medical care for island families.
“We suddenly said we need a hospital. We were all young mothers with families to take care of,” said Wilma Patrick, an Oak Harbor resident who was a member of the original guild that formed to promote the hospital’s formation.
Back then, Patrick said there were only three doctors in Oak Harbor, one in Coupeville and one on South Whidbey. Any hospital stays were done at Skagit Valley Hospital in Mount Vernon or in Everett.
Such a long distance to a hospital proved difficult. She recalled an instance where her son ruptured his appendix and she had to drive him to Mount Vernon for treatment. She would make numerous, time-consuming trips between Oak Harbor and Mount Vernon to visit her son.
There were considerable hurdles to jump in the coming years, but the women persisted. Volunteers formed guilds throughout Whidbey Island. By 1959, 20 guilds had formed to promote and raise money for the hospital.
“This is probably the only thing that unified the island,” Patrick said of the hospital.
However, exactly where the hospital would be located remained up in the air. Patrick said Coupeville residents initially didn’t want to be part of the process because they assumed the hospital would be built in Oak Harbor. South Whidbey had previously formed its own hospital district and the city of Oak Harbor was already considered to be in the service area of Skagit Valley Hospital.
Finally, after much deliberation, historic Coupeville was chosen because of its central location. It’s a 10 mile drive from Oak Harbor and about 25 miles from South Whidbey’s major population areas.
Supporters had quite a chore uniting all of the various factions to work on one focused effort. The hospital districts were combined into one in 1963 and the first commissioners (Ed Adamson, Ted Christensen and James Hay) were named and efforts began to prepare a site in Coupeville. The vision started to become a reality after voters in 1964 approved $650,000 in bonds to fund the new building.
Once Whidbey residents were united in trying to start a hospital, volunteers met with resistance in Olympia in an effort to get federal dollars.
The following year, the hospital commissioners were shot down by what was then known as the Medical Facility Advisory Council when they attempted to obtain federal Hill-Burton dollars, which was a pot of money devoted to public hospital construction, according to “A Common Need: Whidbey General Hospital and the History of Medical Care on Whidbey Island.”
According to the book, the committee chairman bluntly said he “did not think Whidbey should have a hospital.” Eventually the Whidbey commissioners successfully sued the committee and, 10 years after the first guild was formed, $429,994 in Hill-Burton funds were allocated for Whidbey General Hospital construction.
Because of how long it took to obtain funding to build the hospital, costs increased and officials didn’t have enough money to actually open the hospital. Voters approved an additional bond in 1969.
In March 1970, Whidbey General Hospital opened on 6 acres of land in Coupeville. Patrick said the hospital guilds that had been working for so long to get the hospital built raised $52,000, which was enough to furnish all the rooms.
While most of the guilds disbanded since the hospital opened, one is still operating and supporting the hospital’s mission.
The Polly Harpole Guild, named after the woman who ran a birthing home, still has 50 members, including Patrick, and meets five times a year. Guild members raise approximately $10,000 a year which benefit scholarships and equipment purchases at the hospital.
Now that Whidbey General Hospital has been serving the community for 41 years, Patrick sees the need for the modernization a new wing will bring. Voters will consider a $50 million bond next month to fund construction of a new wing of single-patient rooms. She believes it’s necessary for Whidbey’s hospital to keep up with medical advances.
“It’s absolutely important. The hospital is 40 years old and there’s been a lot of changes in health care delivery,” she said.