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Looking back, looking ahead

HUNTINGTON, W.Va. — It was a celebration that honored the past as much as bidding welcome to a future that those at the St. Mary’s dedication ceremony believe will continue the medical center’s tradition of service.

Friday afternoon was the blessing and dedication of the new St. Mary’s Center for Education, in a warehouse-size building that once housed a now-defunct chain grocery store near the medical center’s main campus. Currently 260 are enrolled at the center in its nursing, medical imaging or respiratory therapy programs.

It was on Nov. 6, 1924, that the Sisters of the Pallottine Missionary Society opened a 35-bed hospital in Huntington that today has metamorphosed into a multi-service medical center, the second largest in the state with 2,600 employees.

Two years after that early hospital opened, those nuns saw the need for a larger nursing staff and initiated St. Mary’s first school of nursing.

Often throughout the ceremony those speaking made reference to the work ethic, devotion to God and service to others of that handful of sisters who founded the hospital.

“And their legacy is carried on by the Pallottine sisters today,” Doug Korstanje, director of marketing and community relations, said.

The hospital’s founding sisters came to the United States from Germany in 1912 and from the start fortune seemed to smile on them. Originally they had been booked to come to this country on the ill-fated Titanic. However, the travel papers of one of the nuns were not in order, so they were forced to take another ship. It was a delay that saved their lives.

Their first assignment was to learn English from the sisters of St. Francis in upstate New York. However another travel delay forced them to postpone their journey and once again, they averted disaster as the train that was to have carried them derailed.

From New York they went to Richwood, W.Va., where they set up a hospital. Then in 1924, the Wheeling-based bishop asked them to start a hospital in Huntington.

Since that first class in 1926 3,500 students have graduated from St. Mary’s school, which today is housed in a state-of-the-art high-tech facility that is also home to the hospital’s respiratory therapy and medical imaging schools.

The medical imaging program began in the 1960s and just four years ago St. Mary’s started the respiratory therapy program.

“The sisters would be amazed,” Dr. Shelia Kyle, vice president of the nursing school, said about the course the hospital has taken. “You will see the latest in technology. We teach them there is an art and a science in health care. You can’t have one without the other.”

The blessing for the center was made by the Most Reverend Michael J. Bransfield, bishop of the Wheeling-Charleston, W.Va., diocese.

Following the dedication guests could tour the center, which offers individual study carrels with wireless access and labs that have increased by eight times the number of computers available to students. There are two 10-bed patient demonstration labs with interactive mannequins on which the students can hone their skills; a library; and lecture halls.

Refurbishing the former retail space was funded through community donations and $1.5 million secured from U.S. Rep Nick Rahall, D-W.Va. Rahall was to have spoken at the ceremony but was kept in Washington over the debate on health care reform legislation.

However, he sent a video congratulating the hospital and outlining his five-step solution to the health care crisis gripping the nation that included open access to insurance plans, affordable health care and a public option to compete with private plans.

When the nursing school first opened, enrollment was restricted to single women, Sister Celeste Lynch, onetime nursing director, said. Today the school boasts a diverse population of students, including men and married women.

“Now it is the mature student with expertise in other fields,” Sister Celeste, also president of the Pallottine Health Services, told the audience.

In its early days, nurses focused solely on bedside care. But today the nurse is often called upon to perform primary care, Sister Celeste said.

“Lives will be changed and shaped in these classrooms,” she said.