Bits & Pieces

May 10, 2009

The Panama Hospital

Panoramic view of the Panama Hospital around 1929-30

The Panama Hospital was planned in 1915 by Ricardo Arias, Dr. Agusto Samuel Boyd, Manuel Espinosa Batista, Dr. Alfred Birch Herrick, Jose Gabriel Duque, Pedro Arias Feraud and Julio Jose Fabrega. In August of that same year, the Company of the Panama Hospital, bought the land for the hospital from the government of Panama for $6,000. This location was in the area known as "La Exposicion" between Cuba and Justo Arosemena Avenues on two sides and 35th and 36th Streets on the other two sides.

Two years later, in June of 1917, the principal building was constructed at a cost of $60,000 and consisted of a base of 560 square meters on which a "basement" at street level and three floors were built. Many modern facilities were added, including "electric buzzers, electric bulbs and an elevator large enough for a stretcher".

The design of the building was such as to allow cooling by the free circulation of air through large windows connected to ample screened porches or balconies.

The nursing staff consisted of 10 American graduated nurses with many years of experience, dressed in white linen, and who spoke perfect Spanish. The surgeons included the locally famous Dr. A.B. Herrick, a graduate of John Hopkins University and formerly Chief of the Ancon Hospital, later Gorgas Hospital, for 12 years; Dr. A.S. Boyd, graduate of the University of Columbia and formerly Chief of Santo Tomas Hospital since 1907; Dr. D.F. Reeder, graduate of the University of Kentucky and for 10 years Chef or Ear, Nose and Throat surgery at Ancon Hospital. The medical doctors included Dr. W.M. James, Dr. Alfonso Preciado, Dr. M.E. Velasquez, Dr. Harry Strunz and Dr. Nicolas Solano.

In 1919, 20 more rooms were added to the hospital and by 1926, the hospital had 60 rooms. Expansion continued at a good pace and by 1930, the hospital could boast about 100 rooms. Also, additions to the medical staff included Doctors D.C. Briscoe, Tomas Guardia, Julio Vengoechea, R.W. Runyan, Frank A. Raymond, J.J. Vallarino, and Lawrence Getz.

On November 22, 1937, Dr. Herrick died in the same hospital he had helped found. The following year, on the day of his death, a monument was unveiled next to the hospital

The hospital finally closed down in 1966 and the famous monument to the founder was moved to the site of the Ministry of Health of Panama where it is found today. The hospital itself was demolished in 1970.

My Personal Recollections:

I believe I was born in the Panama Hospital. It was there also that Dr. Reeder performed a mastoid surgery on my right ear at age 5 and later, at age 10 or 11, the same doctor removed my tonsils. I remember the American nurses. The one looking after me when I was 5, was a blonde lady who was very kind and with whom I fell in love. I call it love because I always looked forward to seeing her come into my room.

I recall my visits to the hospital for purposes of going to surgery, going to the clinics and for visiting family members who were ill. I remember going up the steps in front which led to a porch and then to the main door. Once onside it was dark, cool and with a strong smell of hospital. The dark waiting room had the X-Ray room to the left and the office on the right. Immediately to the left and towards the front was the elevator and the stairs which went around the elevator shaft. The elevator had a large steel door with an opaque window half the size of the door through which one could see the light of the elevator as it went up or came down. This door opened outwards. Once inside the elevator, a steel accordion type door would slide shut by the operator and up we would go.

The clinics were on the top floor and, early on, one had to step out of the elevator area and go through a door that led to a roof terrace. This had to be crossed in order to get to where the clinics were. Later, this terrace was enclosed and became a large waiting room for the clinics.

The patients rooms had swinging doors similar to those found in bars. If one wanted ice, one went to the small service area for each floor section, opened an ice box, took the block of ice out and, with an ice pick, chipped the ice needed into a container provided by the hospital.

It is still fresh in my mind how Dr. Herrick was revered as a miracle worker. People spoke his name with almost the same respect they showed when speaking of God. And when he died, there was great mourning in Panama. One would think that we would no longer be able to get good medical care any more. While I was only 6 years old when his monument was dedicated, it is still clear in my mind being present for the dedication of his statue.

The Panama Hospital will forever be a vivid recollection of my youth.

- Luis R. Celerier
Longview, Texas