Myrna Davis recalls growing up in South Charleston in the 1940s, attending church with her family and watching her parents and others in the congregation drop whatever they could into the collection plate when it came around.
The money, she said, was to help create a hospital. There was a shortage of beds in the Kanawha Valley region at the time. The community relied on a string of small hospitals and health centers. Few offered specialty and emergency services at the scale needed.
“It wasn’t very easy before. There was a hospital by the Riverwalk — that was Dunn Hospital, it had a few beds — but, no, there weren’t a lot of options,” Davis said. “When Thomas came, well, that opening, it was a blessing for everyone in this area.”
This month marks 75 years of Thomas Memorial Hospital’s presence in the community. When Thomas opened in 1946, Davis didn’t know she’d spend more than 55 years working in the halls of the hospital her parents and neighbors helped fund.
“I wouldn’t change anything, though,” said Davis, the laundry supervisor at Thomas. “This place has been a family — a home — to me.”
Named after Herbert J. Thomas, a local football star killed in World War II, Thomas Memorial originally offered 70 beds and employed 100 people. Today, it serves more than 275,000 patients annually and employs 1,650 people.
As the facilities have grown — adding specialty centers, clinics and more — so has the technology, said Thomas Health Systems CEO Dan Lauffer.
He started his career at the hospital as a physician’s assistant in the early 1980s. Then, he said, the work looked much different.
“There have been a lot of advancements in medicine, particularly in drugs and technology, that weren’t available in the ‘80s,” Lauffer said. “Those advancements — they’re light years improved — they allow us to provide better care, better quality of life for the patients we see.”
Lauffer said this is the state of medicine in general. In West Virginia, though, the challenges also have evolved.
There’s always been a drug problem, said Lauffer, but the epidemic today is much different — and more deadly — than that of decades ago. Today, the state’s population skews older, heightening the need for specialty services and programs to manage long-term conditions. As environmental conditions —and the industries that shape them — have changed, so have the community’s needs.
Lauffer said that Thomas Memorial’s strategy has been to find gaps in community need and fill them as best the hospital can.
“That means being flexible and listening to the people we serve often,” Lauffer said. “Our board of trustees, they’re all members of the community the hospital serves. They represent the people who started this hospital, and they understand the mission of the hospital.”
In 2007, Thomas Memorial purchased St. Francis Hospital and formed Thomas Health Systems. The system added private rooms, an obstetrics wing and a surgical unit. The extra space meant more services.
But it hasn’t always been easy.
In January 2020, as the COVID-19 pandemic hit West Virginia, Thomas Health filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy.
“I was devastated, sad and a little concerned for my job,” said Cathy Tobia, the only palliative care nurse at Thomas. “I didn’t want to work anywhere else. Where I was, what I was doing — I loved it. I loved coming to work every day, and it was a bit scary to think of that changing.”
Tobia started working at Thomas in 1981. She’s seen the changes Lauffer describes. Medical services have advanced at lightning speed, meaning nurses, specifically, are tasked with knowing more today than 75 or even 20 years ago.
When the bankruptcy was announced, Tobia said, she and her colleagues “never stopped.”
“We went on with our day-to-day, and we weren’t really affected by it, which was amazing, I think,” Tobia said. “Today we’ve bounced back amazingly. Considering the pandemic, we came back in huge strides.”
Some employees were furloughed at the beginning of the bankruptcy process, but Lauffer said no one was laid off. Through the beginning of the pandemic, as elective operations were halted and people became hesitant about going to hospitals, Thomas lost millions of dollars in revenue.
In June, the system filed an agreement with investors to emerge from bankruptcy. A judge approved the plan.
“There were a few hard months there, but when things started to rebound, I think we all really felt the difference. Morale was higher, people were less nervous,” said Ernie Bsharah, a physician’s assistant in surgery at Thomas. “Then, well, there was still the pandemic. That’s another bad blow for us.”
Hospitals across the country face a nursing shortage, and those who are working — nurses, physicians, physician’s assistants and others — are exhausted after two years of the pandemic.
Healthcare funding is a struggle amid great need.
Lauffer said he sees the more change coming, including telemedicine to expand services into less accessible places and more programs for preventative care and education.
“Seventy-five years is a long time for a hospital to be in operation. [Thomas] has done so much in that time, and there’s even more room for growth,” Lauffer said.
One of the longest serving employees at the hospital, Davis said she hopes people understand how hard staffers work for the community. She’s looking forward to the day — hopefully soon — where she can eat lunch with her colleagues again without fear of the pandemic.
The staff, Davis said, have always been like family. When her daughter died in the 1980s, staffers gathered around Davis and helped cover expenses to have her daughter flown back home. Through the years, she’s seen countless examples of colleagues standing with each other through challenges, personal and professional.
“When something bad happens, this hospital pulls together. It always has and the last two years are no different,” Davis said. “It’s hard now. We’re all afraid to talk to each other, be near each other [because of COVID-19], but I know that’s not forever. We’re dealing with it together.”