South Peninsula Hospital Turns 60: How the Hospital Got Started
Homer’s South Peninsula Hospital turns 60 this year. The locally owned and operated nonprofit hospital started in the mid-’50s, before statehood. In the early days, it was staffed with just one doctor and a couple of nurses. But as Homer grew and changed, so did the hospital. Today, it employs more than 400 people. And that's not the only thing that’s changed.
Susan Cushing was 3 years old in 1950 when her family moved to Seward so that her father, a doctor, could to help treat people affected by tuberculosis at the sanatorium.
“It mostly affected lungs, so the way they treated it in those days was to crack the chest and remove the diseased portion of the lung. So that was my dad’s specialty, was chest cracking. They called them thoracic surgeons in those days,” says Cushing.
When he could, her dad, Dr. Francis Phillips, would travel to Homer to help people here, too.
“I’m told by a couple of doctors from the hospital here that there are still surgical instruments up there that have my dad’s name scratched on them,” said Cushing.
It was the beginning of medical service in the tiny town at the end of the road. Dr. Phillips was in high demand in the young state.
“They did not have a local doctor in Homer at the time, so my dad flew over to Homer once a month to doctor the people here, in a very small plane with Christensen Air Service,” said Cushing.
When they were in Homer, they stayed with local families.
“So I remember staying at the McClay’s out on East End Road, and one of the McClay boys had fallen from the tractor and had a punctured lung, and my father, being the only chest surgeon in Alaska, came over to operate on him,” said Cushing.
The boy wasn’t expected to live, Cushing says, but he made it. They had to get back to Seward that night — which meant flying in the dark. A maintenance man from the sanatorium and some friends came out to help.
“Drove their cars down to this very short, what was a runway—Nash Road, a dirt strip in Seward — and shone their headlights at either end of that strip for the plane to land. So it was a lot of trips like that,” said Cushing.
Cushing says her dad is also known for delivering Otto Kilcher in 1950, whose descendants have been made famous recently by Alaska reality TV.
Cushing says her dad also played a role in construction of the first hospital in Homer. He helped convince the commissioner of the Department of Health to obtain funding from the federal government to build the facility. He then placed the cornerstone in 1956.
The first resident doctor was Dr. John Finger, who arrived that year and worked with the hospital for nearly a decade. Dr. Paul Eneboe started at the hospital in 1968.
Eneboe says when he arrived, the hospital was primitive by today’s standards.
“There was no lab, no anesthesia machine — there was one room, which was the operating room/delivery room which was modestly equipped. X-rays were a hundred milliamp rocket machine that we had to hand-dip, hand-develop films. So it was a very different world. If I wanted lab work, I had to do it myself,” said Eneboe.
And it was much smaller.
“Six beds,” said Eneboe.
Eneboe still works for the hospital. He’s a medical director for its long-term care facility. He’s seen many changes over the years. For example, there was no helicopter on site to take people to Anchorage in an emergency when he started working there. He says, occasionally, the military would send a C-130 from Elmendorf Air Force Base, or private planes would help.
“As far as broken bones, I did it. Now we have an orthopedist. We have all kinds of physicians, radiologists, anesthesiologists. We are a big, busy medical staff and back then it was just me alone,” said Eneboe.
Nurse Gail Sorensen started at the hospital in 1972. Retired now, she has authored books about her work as a cadet nurse during World War II, before she arrived in Alaska. She says the nurses did lots of things in those days that they don’t do today.
“The nurses did the cooking, the cleaning and the laundry, besides taking care of the patients and delivering a few babies,” said Sorensen.
Sorensen says she liked working at the remote Alaska hospital. With a small staff, she says she learned a lot, sometimes even doing things a doctor normally would, like performing small surgeries.
“We came for adventure and we found it,” said Sorensen.
In 1977 the hospital would construct a new building, known by locals as the old new hospital, opening the door for new equipment, facilities and more medical care providers.
Editor's Note: This story is part one of a two-part series. Tune in to KBBI AM890 on Monday, July 11, to hear part two exploring how things have changed and what’s on the horizon for South Peninsula Hospital. The facility is hosting a celebration of its 60th anniversary Saturday, July 9, from 11 a.m. - 2 p.m.