100 years of Navy medicine in San Diego Medical
one hundred years ago, according to Navy lore, the United States entered World War I and opened a troop training camp in San Diego, complete with a budding naval dispensary.
The site was Balboa Park, where buildings left over from a 1915 exposition were awaiting new uses.
It’s now a 6,600-employee economic powerhouse for the city. The hospital trains most of the Navy’s doctors, supplies medical staff for the battlefield and cares for 125,000 patients around the region.
That’s just one side of the story.
Another is that San Diego’s naval hospital was a major early marketing victory for the city’s business leaders, who were aggressively wooing the Navy Department around the dawn of the 20th century.
After 10 years of stagnant economic growth, city officials put on a hard sell — including weekly telegrams and letters to Navy officials back East, complete with handwritten notes about San Diego’s sunny weather forecast.
“The chamber of commerce hammered and hammered and hammered at the Navy Department and created quite an amazing relationship,” said historian Abraham Shragge, whose doctoral dissertation looked at the Navy and San Diego during that period.
“It’s not an exaggeratio
n to call it a love affair,” he added. “They were very courtly to the Navy, and the Navy responded.”
A century later, that naval hospital is one of the largest U.S. military medical centers in the world.
“There is no place like this place. It’s huge. It takes care of an incredible number of patients,” said Harold Koenig, a retired three-star admiral was the San Diego hospital’s commanding officer in the 1980s and later became the Navy surgeon general.
Why isn’t the Balboa Park medical center a household name nationally — like Walter Reed in Maryland?
“It’s because we’re out here in the south-west corner of the nation,” Koenig said.
But, of course, that’s why the Navy chose San Diego. Those chamber of commerce dispatches about sunny skies paid off.
The Navy put its first flight school on Coronado in 1911, and Balboa Park was taken over as a World War I training camp by 1917.
As for medicine, San Diego’s warm air had already earned it a national reputation as a health retreat for people with asthma and tuberculosis.
“They sold the weather relentlessly,” Schrage said.
Build-up for the ‘Great War’
The Navy set up shop in a building once used as the park police headquarters.
It was called the War Dispensary. Initially, there were two wards of 25 beds each, with a surgical ward in what’s currently the Pepper Grove Playground.
Between May 1917 and December 1918, the end of the war, the Dispensary treated 9,997 patients and grew to 800 hospital beds.
By now, the Navy saw the center’s worth.
A year later, Congress authorized the Navy to accept a 22-acre parcel at the park’s Inspiration Point for construction of a new naval hospital.
Built in the Spanish Colonial style that had become the Balboa Park trademark, the hospital was known unofficially as the “pink palace” due to the hue of its stucco.
The Navy added construction projects over time. The hospital became a collection of buildings loosely organized around a central courtyard, with fountains and lawns for patients and workers to enjoy. The complex was in operation for 65 years, through World War II and the Korean and Vietnam wars.
People who have worked there fondly remember the place, with its big open windows and breezy views of San Diego Bay.
“There were things that we don’t have here now — a corps school where we trained the young corpsmen. And we had a gas station and a little store. And we had a golf course and tennis courts,” said Donna MacKenzie, who started at the Navy hospital in 1971 and is the longtime executive assistant to the commanding officer.
“You could just live your life there. It was a family situation.”
WWII: Taking over the park
When World War II arrived, the San Diego naval hospital shifted into high gear — as did the rest of the city’s wartime industry. The Navy spread out to occupy most of the park’s central buildings, and the military space was temporarily renamed, Camp Kidd.
In addition to medical work, the Navy used the park for training and barracks.
By January 1942, a month after the Japanese attacks in Hawaii, the first Pearl Harbor victims were brought to the San Diego naval hospital for treatment.
At that point, it consisted of 56 buildings with 1,424 beds and 728 staff members.
In total, more than 150,000 patients were treated at the hospital between 1941 and 1945.
Survivors of some of the bloodiest Pacific campaigns — Okinawa, Iwo Jima, Tarawa — were transported to San Diego for care.
At war’s end, then-Secretary of the Navy James Forrestal issued a commendation to the Navy Hospital Corps.
“Out of every 100 men of the United States Navy and Marine Corps who were wounded in World War II, 97 recovered. That is a record not equalled anywhere anytime,” he wrote.
The park was largely returned to the city in 1946. However, the Navy hospital continued on in the pink palace at Inspiration Point and eventually added more buildings down the rear slope into Florida Canyon.
In 1950, the Navy built a modern, multistory structure facing Florida Drive to house 1,000 beds and, in 1957, a surgical unit. This nondescript, beige building became the heart of the medical centre.
The hospital administration continued to occupy the pink palace while patients reported to the new building, which still stands and is referred to simply as Building 26. The latter building regained importance during the Iraq and Afghanistan war era when it was renovated as a barracks for gravely wounded troops living at the hospital for long-term convalescence.
By the time the Vietnam War rolled around, the San Diego naval hospital had become the largest U.S. military medical center in the world, according to the Navy Bureau of Medicine and Surgery’s historian.
Notably, the medical center had to adjust its services to meet the issues of the day.
For instance, in March 1973, dozens of U.S. former prisoners of war in Vietnam were brought to the Balboa Park hospital upon returning home. It was sometimes the scene of the initial reunion with their families.
“I remember right where I was standing, watching those POWs coming off that bus. The bus drove up, and as many staff as were available were standing there to greet them,” said MacKenzie, the longtime employee.
“They called their names and they got off, and their families met them. It was awesome. They stayed with us until they were well enough,” she said. “Things like that stick in your mind and make your job worthwhile.”
Hospital workers in San Diego were assigned to collect data from former prisoners of war and develop a comprehensive health plan for them. The Navy established a Center for POW Studies in Point Loma.
In another sign of the times, the Navy’s first rehabilitation programs for drug addicts was created at the then-Miramar Naval Air Station. In July 1971, eight sailors and Marines who had become heroin addicts in Vietnam were the first to join.
A modern hospital
As the nation shook off the Vietnam War, Navy officials decided it was time for a new hospital in San Diego.
Executing on that vision was not an easy task.
The civic debate back then rivalled the fury of today’s Qualcomm Stadium replacement battle.
The Navy would have perhaps preferred a location closer to San Diego Naval Base or the Navy and Marine Corps recruit depots of the day. But there was no available land, said Koenig, who was the medical center’s commanding officer from 1985 to 1987, just before the new hospital opened.
“There were all sorts of places proposed to put the new hospital. Eventually, it came down to Florida Canyon, which had been left in its natural state, as the best place,” Koenig said.
There was a proposal to build in downtown San Diego near City College. Another was for Market Street just east of Interstate 15, an area dubbed “Helix Heights” in pitches. The voters approved the latter project, but the Navy rejected it.
Some open-space advocates fought the Florida Canyon site. The Save Balboa Park Committee bemoaned the development of those canyonlands, instead wanting to “reunite” the east and west sides of the park. And in September 1979, a public vote on Proposition D fell short of the two-thirds needed to approve a land swap between the Navy and the city.
In the end, the Navy had federal muscle. Navy brass asked the U.S. Justice Department to condemn the land it was targeting.
In March 1980, a federal judge awarded possession of about 36 acres of Florida Canyon to the Navy for construction of a new hospital.
Two years later, the San Diego City Council approved a deal to give those 36 acres of Florida Canyon land to the Navy in return for 34 acres of the old hospital site in Balboa Park and $6.86 million to cover demolition of several buildings.
For the Navy, what was at stake was bringing its West Coast hub into the modern age of medicine.
“(The old hospital) was actually getting to the point where it was dangerous,” Koenig remembers. “The structural materials were just deteriorating over so many years.”
It was also a logistical headache. For example, babies born in the basement operating rooms had to be transported up six floors via elevator and then through outdoor courtyards and across the street to get to the nursery, Koenig said.
Also, he added, the idea of wards to separate infectious-disease patients was antiquated.
“It was a very old design, with the courtyards. It had been built to bring down the spread of infection. There was the ward for pneumonia, the ward for meningitis and so forth. They tried not to mix the patients and they tried to have distance between them,” Koenig said. “Whereas the new modern hospitals were quite a bit different.”
The construction lasted years. In 1988, the new $382 million naval hospital was dedicated. Its front entrance came from Florida Drive, which had been made into a significant roadway.
Eventually, all but three of the old Navy hospital buildings on park land were demolished. What’s left are the old administration building, a library and the chapel — now the Veterans Museum at Balboa Park.
Thus the San Diego naval hospital entered the era that would bring the Persian Gulf War and, later, the post-9/11 conflicts. In any future Pacific conflict, the Balboa complex is designated to receive the bulk of the wounded.
What does the future bring? The “new” hospital will be 30 years old next year.
“I remember walking into it when it was brand new. I was a third-year medical student. I bought my first uniform here, within a month of its opening. Yeah, I’m an old guy,” joked Capt. Joel Roos, the current commanding officer of the medical center. “At some point, it will achieve end-of-life expectancy. Then you start talking about new facilities, and whether that’s the same location or different location — don’t know.”
Roughly $250 million in modernization work is scheduled for the Balboa Park medical campus. The schedule includes retrofitting buildings to meet current earthquake standards and upgrading the electrical system to feed the power needs of modern medical equipment.
Another effort is to offer more services in 10 branch clinics around the county — where access is easier than at the hospital complex, where it’s famously hard to find parking.
While there’s 100 years of architectural history to remember, Roos said what’s really important is the work that’s taken place there.
“Doesn’t matter if you go back to 1917 or now, the people who work here are here because they want to be, whether they are civilian or military,” he said. “They provide care to the most important group in this country, which is our active-duty military population and their families. And it’s a privilege to take care of those patients.”
Courtesy: By Jeanette Steele, Source link