As Whitman Hospital & Medical Center (WHMC) celebrates 120+ years, it gives the staff a feeling of pride to reflect on the hospital's rich history. The successes and downfalls WHMC has enjoyed throughout its evolution have all contributed to its current level of excellence and its philosophy of success based on people, teamwork, and the belief that we can do it. Over 100 years ago, Colfax outbid 2 other towns to get the 1st hospital for Whitman County in pioneer days.
A zealous missionary, the Rev. Jachern, knocked at the door of the convent of the Sisters of Charity in Portland on March 17, 1892. He told the sisters that 3 cities, Colfax, Pullman, and Palouse City, all situated in the little meadows of wheat-producing Whitman County, wished to build a hospital with the support of the Sisters of Charity.
On April 26, 1892, 2 sisters of the order came by train to Colfax from Portland for a visit to the area. They were met by Rev. Jachern who took them to visit a neighbor, a wealthy owner, William Codd. The next day, Rev. Jachern and Mr. Codd took the sisters to the extreme south end of the county. Within a mile of the commercial center, at the last residence of a beautiful little suburb located below a chain of high mountains and a little hill, stood an attractive, small house. The land was 100 feet wide by 500 feet long. In addition to the small house, the land held a small garden and an orchard and together they were offered to the sisters along with the following: The county commissioners would loan $3,000, without interest, for the construction of a hospital, with the sum to be paid with the pensions of the poor and the sick whom they would place under their care. The Chamber of Commerce also promised the handsome sum of $5,000 in cash and 40 acres of land located about 1/4 of a mile away from the property. The city council then obligated themselves to have the sewers made ready and the streets leveled off without any additional cost to the sisters and to supply water forever to the hospital and its surroundings on condition a fountain be placed at the entrance. The city of Colfax did furnish free water for about 50 years, until a state official stopped the practice.
The sisters arrived April 17, 1893, and started their hospital in the little frame building behind the St. Ignatius hospital (now the Manor). The 1st patient was a pneumonia case on May 2, 1893. In the 1st month, 10 were admitted—3 were dismissed and 7 remained. The 1st death was recorded on June 23, 1893, when F.E. Marin, a railroad employee, was crushed between railroad cars.
In 1917, the 1st addition, from the entrance of the hospital to the West End, was added. A 2nd unit, costing $46,000, was added in 1928 to complete the structure. In 1964, St. Ignatius Hospital faced losing its license unless the building was remodeled, so the community decided to relocate the hospital. Whitman County would have to raise $600,000 in 7 months for construction of a new facility. Through a variety of fundraising techniques, such as $100 per plate dinners, and good old-fashioned hard work, the money was raised. Construction of the new building, which was called Whitman Community Hospital, was completed in 1968 and the facility was officially dedicated on Nov. 3.
In March of 1977, remodeling was started to convert the sisters' quarters building into a clinic providing office space for 3 doctors. Chairman Louis Wakefield, of the Whitman Community Hospital Association, said the group had launched the program in an effort to attract new physicians. By September of 1977, the hospital halls were deserted as only 10 of the 58 beds were occupied. The hospital, built with locally raised dollars and the dream of hometown medical care, was peering over the edge of financial ruin. The cause, according to the administrator of the hospital at that time, was lack of physicians. The facility was down to 4 1/2 physicians, which simply was not enough. At that time, the hospital needed 50 percent occupancy to break even. The situation improved in 1982 when Dr. Michael Cunningham brought his Inland Eye Center to the hospital.
By 1984, however, several significant changes happened that had a great effect on the hospital. Changes in Medicare, fewer patients, the closing of obstetrics, and the retirement of several doctors were a cause of great concern for the area. Hospital reserves were almost exhausted in trying to subsidize the operations of the hospital. The low point was 1986 to 1987 when a daily newspaper headline read, "One of Three Palouse Hospitals Likely to Close." In 1987, the board had to make a hard choice. The state had approved a plan that would allow the hospital to begin a conversion to nursing home beds or the board could go for broke with all efforts and resources going to a revitalized acute care hospital. The board chose the latter.
Three doctors who contributed greatly to the turnaround of the hospital were all University of Washington graduates with hometown ties. Dr. Robert Closson was a 1974 Colfax High graduate. Dr. Robert Tulin taught science classes at Colfax High before entering medical school. With Dr. Bryan Johnson, a 1978 Colfax High school graduate, they all helped to turn the fate of the hospital from near closure in 1987 to a "Top 100 Benchmark Hospital for 1994 and 1995."
The 1st step was to reopen the obstetrics department. Second, was the creation of a 1,200 square mile Public Hospital District. A new birthing room was opened Feb. 14, 1988, with a $10,000 gift from the hospital auxiliary.
Slowly, more good things started to happen for the hospital as it continued to expand its services, which now include: allergy, audiology, cardiology, childbirth education, counseling services, CT services, diabetic education, dietitian, emergency services 24/7, gastroenterology, general srugery, laboratory, lifeline program, mammography, massage therapy, MRI services, nephrology, neurology, neurosurgery, obstetrics, occupational therapy, oncology, ophthalmology, optometry, orthopedics, physical therapy, podiatry, speech therapy, telehealth services, ultrasound and x-ray services, and urology. Also located on the WHMC campus are the independent practices of Whitman Medical Group and Three Forks Orthopedics. These much-used clinics continue to this day to save patients time by allowing people to stay close to home.
The history of Whitman Hospital & Medical Center continued to grow as the therapy pool was opened in 1996. In the 1990s, Whitman Hospital & Medical Center acquired Whitman Home Health and Hospice and expanded its staff from 70 employees in 1987 to over 140 by 1997. Whitman Home Health and Hospice was subsequently sold to Family Home Care in 2006 and now operates out of Pullman and Spokane. The hospital also added the Whitman Surgery Center in 2003 and currently has over 200 employees.
The original St. Ignatius Hospital, located at the end of South Main Street, after its addition in the 1920s.