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When Santa Rosa?s General Hospital shut its doors 25 years ago, who would have believed that fond memories of the already-too-old, too-small medical relic on A Street would bring 50 or more physicians, nurses and staff to commemorate the anniversary of its closing.

They had known long before the end came that it was outdated, outmoded and outclassed by Memorial and Community hospitals. Yet, there they were a week ago Saturday, gathered around the front entrance of the sprawling structure that was assembled on that site more than 90 years ago.

With the permission of the Family Support Center that now occupies the facility, they unearthed a time capsule buried on closing day and adjourned to a luncheon where they could laugh and cry together over the hospital that had filled such a unique niche in Santa Rosa?s health care.

You couldn?t call it a celebration, exactly. It was a reunion, certainly, and perhaps a referendum on what health care has become.

Listening to the stories from teary-eyed survivors of General?s staff, it was clear that what we regard as progress is almost always a trade-off.

It?s too bad we can?t see far enough ahead to choose the pluses and minuses; to say, ?OK, save this and that, but lose the rest.?

In our rush to change, we don?t know what we?ll miss the most.

At the gathering, we looked back through a quarter-century when medical technology advanced by quantum leaps. Even the most dedicated nostalgic cannot deny the increase in life spans.

The successes of modern medicine can be measured by the attention once paid to 100th birthdays. They warranted a front-page photo and an interview with advice for achieving long life ? generally hard work, good ancestry, a cigar and a daily shot of whiskey or all four. Today our elders have to make it to 105, at least, to be considered news.

But, giving science its due, the emphasis last Saturday was not so much about the gains as it was the losses. What the staffers have missed in these 25 years is the camaraderie, the fun and the way the patients were cared for at General.

As noted, General Hospital lasted 67 years, about 34 years longer than anyone expected when Memorial opened in 1950.

It had been created in the summer of 1917 in anticipation of the arrival of the Spanish flu epidemic to Santa Rosa ? which did, indeed, hit town in the fall of that year.

It was greeted with some fanfare as the first ?modern? facility for paying patients, even though it consisted of several older buildings moved to the site and cobbled together to make one.

The owners were Southern California investors who recognized the need in a town where the only private hospital (County Hospital took only indigents) was the Mary Jesse Hospital, later the Tanner Hospital, a converted residence at Fifth and King streets with some serious quirks. Example: oftentimes, when someone pushed the elevator button, the lights went out in the operating room. So, it?s easy to see why General was considered an upgrade.

In the 1930s, a rather remarkable woman named Gladys Kay was hired as the hospital administrator, a job she held for more than 30 years. She had absolutely no training in hospital management. She had been a champion ice skater in Canada before she moved to Santa Rosa with her salesman husband. Still, she took on the task with a determination to keep the hospital as ?modern? as she could make it.

The late Dr. Frank Norman, Santa Rosa?s medical historian, liked to tell how she scrimped and saved extra profits in a shoebox in her desk drawer until she had collected enough for a remodel of the operating room. But, when she presented it to the owners, they simply took it and said ?Thank you.? She got enough back to widen the halls and that was all.

It seemed likely that General?s service would end when Memorial opened in 1950, but the growth of the town in the post-World War II decades created the need for hospital beds and General spent the next 34 years as the alternative hospital.

It was a favorite not only of many of the older physicians who used it for less serious surgeries and illnesses, but also of young physicians who recognized the value of the relaxed care their older patients preferred. It was, in short, a cozier, gentler hospital with more time for personal attention than the newer, busier institutions could afford.

At the reunion gathering, under the guidance of General?s last director of nursing, Barbara Behnke, memories flowed forth.

They remembered Pete, the disabled gent who came to the hospital emergency room malnourished. It was agreed that Pete should raise and lower the flag in front of the hospital morning and evening in return for two meals per day.

They remembered the diabetic on welfare who stopped taking his insulin at the end of every month, when his money ran out. They ?cured? his problem by allowing him to come in for his shot several days per month ? until his check arrived.

They remembered that the food was the best of any hospital in town and doctors came regularly for lunch. The kitchen staff was accommodating. Behnke recalled the elderly European woman who was near the end of her life. She had stopped eating and Behnke asked her what her favorite food was. The woman answered that it was ?boiled potatoes, cabbage and onions.? She got it.

They also remembered the softball teams and the bowling teams and the fun they had as a ?workplace family.?

Cardiologist John Reed practiced at General when he first arrived in town in the ?70s. He talked about the picnics, the barbecues, the Christmas dinners and especially the quarterly staff meetings. The all-male events, Reed remembered with a laugh, were not only raucous but sometimes ended up in what might be called a brawl.

?Those staff meetings,? he said, ?were the best parties I?ve ever been to.?

But, in a serious vein, Reed added his praise of the days before what one of the speakers called the ?dehumanizing? of patients, describing General as ?the kind of hospital where a young doctor could build a practice to take pride in.?

Dr. Brad Stuart started his Santa Rosa practice at General, coming from Stanford?s teaching hospital where, he said, ?I had been disenchanted by the way older, sick people were treated ? or overtreated. With all of you at General,? he said, ?I discovered a way to treat people that really made sense. I learned compassion from all of you, and the kind of compassion we discovered together ? a lot of people out there are trying to figure out how to get it back.?

If there was a theme, that was it. As one of the staffers termed it: ?We thought it was a period that would never come again, but now it seems people are craving, if not demanding, that sort of care.?

Stuart, who is now director of Home Care and Hospice for Sutter, is optimistic. After a recent trip to Washington, where legislators are determining the future of health care in America, Stuart sees a future that takes us back to that kind of personalized care.

It makes sense, really. We?ve tried ?big? in so many areas ? retail and news come to mind, leaving personal and local for malls and big box stores and World Wide Web (in case you?ve forgotten what www stands for).

And now we?re thinking about the things we should have saved, and in Stuart?s words, ?trying to figure out how to get them back.?

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