Wayne County Hospital reminisces on 60 years of laughter, tears and dedication

WCH in Corydon to celebrate 60th anniversary during National Hospital Week May 10 through May 16
Published in Corydon Times Republican May 19, 2015 by Jason W. Selby

The Wayne County Hospital in Corydon is celebrating its 60th anniversary this year during National Hospital Week from May 10 through May 16. The hospital began service in 1955. On Thurs., May 14, 2-4 p.m., WCH invites the public to celebrate with a reception in the cafeteria.

Thin walls, fresh popcorn
Debbie Hullinger has been with WCH for 21 years as a PTA in the rehabilitation department, a wit sharpened out of necessity by the many jokesters on staff.The rehab center was once a much smaller unit located next to the emergency room. “People would come in to go to the ER, and automatically go right into [my] department with their bloody stumps,” Hullinger said. “I would say, ‘no, no, no, we can serve you later, but you have to go across the hall.

“The patient rooms were smaller, and they had to share bathrooms. That was a challenge—logistics.”
There were only two shower rooms in the entire hospital. “Improvements are obvious, with our dialysis [unit] and our orthopedic surgeons in Wayne County,” Hullinger said. “In our department we see the orthopedic surgeons saving our Wayne County residents a lot of money and time. They can do their surgeries here, rehab here and be done.”

Marlyn Montgomery, LPN, started at WCH as a nurse’s aide when she was 16 years old, in 1960. She earned 50 cents an hour. “You might work 16 hours,” Montgomery said. “There was no overtime.”
She worked while going to school, before returning as an LPN, the first hired at the Corydon hospital. In 1965, she started her career making $3.75 an hour. “I chose to come here because I could make more money than going to Des Moines,” Montgomery said. She could earn 25 more cents per hour in Corydon. “There was no therapy. The nurses did everything. For the babies, we made our own formula and sterilized it ourselves. You didn’t miss when the weather was bad—you came in and you stayed. The only room that is still where it was at that time is surgery.

“I have always felt it was a good place to work. It was like a big family. Everyone was really close.” That was not just because of the camaraderie of the staff. “It was a family affair many times,” Montgomery explained. “Different members of your family worked here. My sister was a nurse’s aide here and also a lab tech. My mom was a nurse’s aide and a ward clerk. My dad worked in maintenance, was an ambulance driver and an orderly.”

Montgomery remembers the consulting firm Summer Hour running the hospital as WCH’s darkest hour. This was a woman who saw an outbreak of the Asian flu, with 45 patients in a 32-bed hospital and only a cowbell to ring for help, but nothing was as scary as the anonymous faces and black suits of Summer Hour. “When Summer Hour came in, that was a bad experience,” Montgomery said. “They were going to save us all this money—and the way they saved it was to lay off personnel and to not buy anything we needed.” Summer Hour was not the only entity attempting to haul Montgomery away from her duty serving patients.

“I’ve been threatened. A man who was probably 6 foot, 5 inches and weighed about 400 pounds—he’d had a stroke, and he wanted out of here—he promptly picked me up and carried me down the hall. I’ve also been cornered in a room, and I’ve had a knife pulled on me.”
But the good moments outweigh the bad. “You can look out and see all the people that you took care of all the years,” Montgomery said. “To have someone meet you on the street, and it was someone that you had helped—that says, ‘17 years ago, you were in the delivery room with me—you’re the one that helped my baby.’”

Montgomery also recalls that in the earliest days of the hospital, a few elderly people living without electricity in their homes would check in for winter and stay until spring.
“They would get a hot meal,” Montgomery said. “They would get their bed changed. They didn’t have a doctor see them, they just came in and rented a room.”

Lab technician Pam Messersmith began working at WCH in 1979, a year before the Summer Hour fiasco. She stayed home with a brand new baby in July of 1980, hoping that her absence would allow the current lab employees to keep their jobs and benefits under the bureaucrat’s scalpel.
Messersmith returned in 1987, and never left again: “I’ve worked in lab and medical records, and I’ve really enjoyed what I’ve learned about how the whole hospital works together. You see how every department is so essential. I always knew that housekeeping and laundry were essential to our patients’ health.”

Playing the unassuming role of environmental services director at the hospital is Susan Pyner, another 20 years plus employee. Workers that have served at WCH long enough appreciate how quiet the building is now. There were once linoleum floors instead of carpeting, and thin walls.
“You could always catch those business girls coming,” Hullinger deadpanned, referring to the tapping of high heels. “Click, click, click.”

“We had a microwave here,” Messersmith said. “I had made popcorn and was sitting back in a room eating it. And I could hear the patient on that side of the building call up to the nurses’ station—because nothing was soundproof—and she said, ‘guys, call my family, it’s time for me to go to heaven, because I smell fresh popcorn.’ I had to go share my popcorn and reassure her that it wasn’t her time to go to heaven yet.”

There was also no air conditioning, leaving opening the windows and doors as the only means of stirring the air. “We had this one little old lady that everyone thought was confused,” Montgomery said, “because she kept talking about this kitten in her bed. And I walk down the hall, and I see the kitten. It had come in the back door. And I’m sure she really did have a kitten in her bed.”

The motley fools
Since Hullinger’s unit was once located across from the ER, she bore the brunt of the notorious monkeyshines of the EMTs. “They played jokes on us all the time,” Hullinger said.
One of the great stories of the hospital has been the ascendancy of Daren Relph from housekeeping, to a paramedic in the emergency room, to CEO of WCH in 2010—he went from a mop bucket to running the entire show. Relph graduated from Wayne Community High School in 1989 and began working at the hospital the next year. In-between, he was the ringleader of the ER pranksters, according to Hullinger and others.

The veterans in the ER would send their second-year PTA students on a wild goose chase. Relph gladly took part. He once paged Justin Wyatt, now an EMT-PS at WCH, over the loudspeaker to retrieve a package of fallopian tubes. “I sent him up to the purchasing area to look for a box of them,” Relph explained. When Wyatt asked an employee there for the fallopian tubes, she replied, in a tone of conciliation rather than collusion, “What size?”

“I remembered when Kevin Tilley started,” Hullinger said. “That was the day that changed everything.” “Tilley is the resident prankster,” Relph said. “Some of his pranks have been the best.” “I worked with a bunch of jokesters, that’s all there is to it,” said Dale Clark, a 20-year veteran of plant operations. “[One time], Carrie Gassman was having a baby, and they had her in ER.” They decided to pull a prank on former physician’s assistant Ernie Brees. “They put Doug DeVore underneath the table, and put a sheet over Gassman’s legs and called in Brees. Ernie sits down and flips the sheet back, and DeVore jumps out.” Apparently Brees did not find the ploy too funny. He pushed DeVore to the ground to physically demonstrate his displeasure with a sound beating.

“Another was when we moved Kevin Tilley’s office to the basement,” Clark said. They were assiduous in placing all of Tilley’s belongings exactly as they were above. “He deserved that.”
Clark was not the only employee to believe Tilley had it coming.

“One day we were really busy in lab,” Lee Peck of outpatient services said. “I was hurrying and sat down in my chair. I left and came back in, and Tilley was standing there, and he was so mad. He had taken the back off my chair thinking I would fall over, because I am notorious for leaning back to take something off my printer. He just knew I was going to fall out of that chair, but I didn’t.”

One time, they placed a walkie-talkie in a vacuum bag. “We stood at the other end of the hall calling this person’s name,” Clark said. “This person was looking all over trying to figure out who was calling her name. We did not ever tell her the truth on that.”

EMT Tony Funk has worked at the hospital since 1998. “Joyce [Carroll, of the emergency services department] has been putting up with me more years than any other woman except my wife [Eileen],” Funk joked. “The numbers of people that come here [to the hospital] since I started are just amazing,” Carroll said. “We’ve got them coming from every county around us, and sometimes two counties away.”

“I do have to tell one story,” Funk said, the first of several tales he regaled the round table with, before being paged from the room for an emergency. “[Pam Messersmith] stuffed my heart. It about made Eileen jealous.” “An elk heart,” Messersmith explained. “Pam was telling me how to stuff a beef heart, what the recipe was,” Funk said. “I said, ‘man that sounds so good. I’ve got a bunch of buffalo and elk hearts in the freezer at home.’ I usually just sliced and fried them. She said, ‘bring one.’ “I brought one, and she got the other ingredients. The lady in charge of the kitchen at the time said that’s fine, you can stick it in the oven. The nurses shared it. Interestingly enough, most everybody liked it. “I told Eileen about it, and for just a little bit she was green-eyed, and she said, ‘who cooked that?’

“Funny story—most of the funny stories I could tell I probably shouldn’t,” Funk continued. “In 1969, I carried my first ER patient into Wayne County Hospital. He’d been thrown over my shoulder because he wouldn’t come to after a fight at the drive-in. “A few months ago, I was telling that story to one of my sons, and we happened to stop at that man’s house. I told him what I had told my son. And he looked at me and said, ‘Tony, that’s your story. The sheriff’s dead. The doctor’s dead. Your dad’s dead. My dad’s dead. The guy that hit me is dead. I was out cold when you carried me in there—I don’t really remember that night—so tell the story however you want. “When I carried him in here and laid him down [in 1969], the ER consisted of a room about the size of Kevin Tilley’s office. If it was 10 feet square, I think that would be stretching it.”
Only a curtain separated the beds in the old emergency room.

Another character was the late John Walker, who wore a groundhog outfit one year for Groundhog Day. It became an annual tradition.

Sheila Davis recalls the late Dr. Keith Garber coming into the hospital at night in slippers and pajamas, and one time covered in dried chicken blood. Hullinger said Garber often dressed for the shock value, with a pair of saddle shoes distinct in her mind.

Small town hospital life
Tony Funk explained that one downfall of working for a small community’s emergency room is that he must deal with the loss of those that do not make it—more than any other department in the hospital. However, that familiarity with the patients and with fellow long-time employees is also WCH’s strength.

Laboratory director Karen Richardson, MT, has worked in the hospital laboratory for 25 years.
“I can remember walking into the lab and seeing our poor, dear leader Jim Wager,” Richardson said. “He really was the best boss ever.”

“I had been warned about this guy in lab,” Carroll said of Wager. “The first day of orientation, Mike Smith and I were standing in the hospital garage. Wager said something to me, and I said, “I’ve already been warned about you—you don’t scare me.’ From then on, we got along great. His famous saying was, ‘I know the nurses are afraid of me. I like it that way.’”

Connie Stiles of accounting has worked at WCH for 36 years. When she started, they had two rotary phones and four lines. There were no computers, only one, big Burroughs L9000 posting machine. The first computer bought by the hospital, an IBM, went to the administrator’s office.
“Now, they’re everywhere,” Stiles said.

“Connie’s the one who didn’t take time off to have her baby,” Montgomery said. “She came right back to work and brought her baby with her.” Her coworkers helped Stiles change diapers.
“Everybody helps you if you’re having problems,” Stiles said. “It’s just a great place to be.”

“Our sons and sons-in-laws were shipped off to Iraq,” Hullinger said. “People donated care packages. My son-in-law finally said, ‘you can stop sending now,’ because people just brought stuff—it was great, because [the soldiers] weren’t getting all their MREs.”

Kathy Banks Hunt in clinic billing has worked over 25 years at WCH. Hunt and Stiles originally interviewed for the same job, but Stiles was awarded the position. Fortunately for Hunt, less than two months later, Judy Kaufman contacted her and offered her a job.

“In the 1980s, it was hard for the hospital to make a living,” Hunt said. “We went through some rough times, and it was just plain walls. We as a group went to the administrator and said that if the hospital would buy wallpaper we would donate our time. We came at night and wallpapered the hospital. We took such pride in the place.”

“I remember in the old days you could wash up and gown and go rock babies in the nursery,” Hullinger said. It was a privilege for many of the woman working at the hospital. “Now we don’t even see the babies.”

Mike Thomas, now associate administrator, began working at the hospital as a senior at Wayne, while taking EMS classes at night. Immediately after graduating in 1991, he got a job in the ambulance department. We used to take all of our own ambulance calls,” Thomas said. “There was no 911. We had our own number—872-2627. You could always hear the distinct ring of the phone in the nurse’s station.

“One ambulance call, the patient was unhappy about being in the back, after he had woken up—he was diabetic, and we had given him some sugar. We stopped at the stop sign. Steve Hand was in the back with the patient. The patient jumped out. And Steve was yelling at him, ‘You can go, but I’ve got to take the IV out of your arm!’”

One time, after loading a patient in the ambulance, Thomas jumped in the back with his partner Jack Briggs driving. A family member wanted to go with the patient, so Briggs jumped out of the ambulance, but forgot to put the vehicle back into park, the driver’s side door open.
“All of the sudden, I’m taking this person’s blood pressure, and the ambulance was moving,” Thomas said. “We’re rolling down, and I see Briggs waddle-running as he always did. I dove forward through our little hallway between the cab and back, and I hit the brakes with my hand, and Briggs hit the door.”

Going to a small town hospital can also be a challenge—at first—for some patients.
“When I first moved to Corydon, Grady did not want me to come here to the doctor, because it was [Dr. Douglas Hoch],” Lee Peck said. Grady is Peck’s late husband. “Grady had run around with [Hoch]. When [my daughter] Erin got sick at four months old, we came here, and we ended up switching because I was so upset with our doctor in Indianola. Erin was just four months old when she got meningitis. “Long story short, when we got to Des Moines with her, the doctors at Blank Children’s Hospital told us, had Dr. Hoch not started the IV he did, Erin would have never made the trip. They didn’t life flight back then.

“My friends from Indianola are used to dealing with Des Moines hospitals, and they just can’t get over what a state-of-the-art facility we are, and how much we have to offer for being just a small county hospital. “A couple of years ago, our friends came down for our Festival of Trees. My one friend is a nurse at Broadlawns Medical Center in Des Moines, and it just blew her away that Daren [Relph] was there volunteering. She said, ‘our CEO, you would never see him out in public.’ She could not get over that [Relph] was there volunteering. “I couldn’t ask for better friends and employees in this hospital to support and stand up for you. We’ve all had our ups and downs, we’ve all had our arguments, but I know that no matter what, there is not one person that would not stand up and do something for that next person.”
“I’m very proud of all of our employees,” Relph said. “And the dedication they have for helping people in their times of need.”