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South Peninsula Hospital Turns 60: What's on the Horizon

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 around 400 people. And that’s not the only thing that’s changed. 

It was May 1977 and Homer resident Gayle Forrest was in labor in the parking lot at the hospital just built in Homer.

“My claim to fame was having the first baby in the older new facility,” said Forest.

Forrest’s family moved to Homer right before statehood in 1957. She remembers what medical care was like before there was a modern hospital — pretty basic. She was excited because the facility offered more than the old hospital.

“They had a labor room and a delivery room,” said Forest.

Her husband was out fishing when she went into labor, she remembers, so she had to drive herself to the hospital.

“Because it was after hours I went up to the front entrance and the doors were locked and I kind of, the thought went through my mind, ‘What am I going to do now?’” said Forest.

Just then a nurse drove up and let her in, and got her settled to have her baby. It’s that personal connection with doctors, nurses and other staff that endears residents of the Homer area to the hospital, says Forrest.

Homer resident Michael Armstrong agrees. Armstrong has lived in Homer more than 20 years. He’s a reporter for the local newspaper. He says an emergency three years ago increased his gratitude for the caring service the hospital provides.

“It was early Monday morning, Memorial Day morning, and kind of woke up and I had to throw up. And so I was like, ‘Oh, I threw up.’ And then I passed out,” said Armstrong.

It happened again and his wife took him to the hospital, with him passing in and out of consciousness.

“When you enter the hospital it’s like entering this long, dark, tunnel and you hope there’s going to be light at the end of it. And it’s kind of spooky and mysterious,” said Armstrong.

Seeing a familiar face set him at ease.

“They took me in and Dr. Smith, Hal Smith, was the ER doctor. And I know Hal, I known him socially,” said Armstrong.

After monitoring and testing, Armstrong was told he was having heart problems — atrial fibrillation.

“It’s basically one of the chambers of your heart isn’t firing in sequence, is a good way to put it,” said Armstrong.

He passed out again and flat-lined.

“And I was out 53 seconds and I came up, woke up just on my own without any other sort of intervention, and I saw Hal Smith ready to give me CPR. So I was about a second away from getting a really good chest bruise, but fortunately he didn’t have to do that. My heart restarted on its own and at that point, Dr. Smith said, ‘I think you’re going to get a helicopter ride,’” said Armstrong.

Armstrong was medevaced to Anchorage and eventually got a pacemaker. The hospital’s new helipad was added to the roof during the most recent construction, completed in 2009.

Robert Letson is South Peninsula Hospital’s CEO. He says the hospital has positioned itself well to serve its aging population.

“A lot of the services we have added or expanded, because Homer does have a higher elderly population than the state average and it has become very popular as a retirement area,” said Letson.

He says they’ve added neurology and cardiology departments, developed a robust home healthcare system and, he points out, they have a 28-bed long-term care unit attached to the hospital.

One challenge, Letson says, is the possibility of centralization. He says South Peninsula Hospital is working with Central Peninsula Hospital to reduce redundancies and to be more efficient.

“But I do not want a centralization of boards or management to where we become a satellite. That would not be a good thing for Homer or the hospital,” said Letson.

Another challenge is the possibility that the service area boundary for the hospital, which extends north of Ninilchik to Clam Gulch, could be moved south, reducing funding.

Despite the challenges, he says he’s optimistic about what is on the horizon for the hospital.

“I think we have a bright future. There will always be challenges. But I think, especially the way that this community has been so good about supporting the hospital and helping us, I really think we will fare well in the future,” said Letson.

Like the last 60 years, Letson says, the next 60 will have a lot to do with the people who live here.

Editor's Note: This is part two of a two-part series. The facility hosted a celebration of its 60th Anniversary on Saturday, July 9.

Daysha Eaton holds a B.A. from Evergreen State College, and a M.A. from the University of Southern California. Daysha got her start in radio at Seattle public radio stations, KPLU and KUOW. Before coming to KBBI, she was the News Director at KYUK in Bethel. She has also worked as the Southcentral Reporter for KSKA in Anchorage.