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Mercy Hospital

Growth & Expansion

Text contributions from Ian Saxine, MHS Historian. Items courtesy of Mercy Hospital.

Keeping Up With the Times

In 1941, as the United States stood on the brink of entering another world war, the growing city of Portland needed greater hospital capacity. To meet this need, the Sisters of Mercy arranged for the purchase of property at 144 State Street. That same year, the Sisters received additional control from the diocese over the management of Queen’s. To reflect the transition, Queen’s Hospital became Mercy Hospital.

For patients, the expansion was welcome news. When the old Queen’s Hospital closed in the winter of 1942-43, it contained 60 beds, but old hands remembered up to 98 patients treated inside at one time. Patients were kept “under the stairs” in St. Luke’s pavilion, and along the sun parlor. The fundraising campaign for the expansion demonstrated Mercy’s enduring relationship to the greater Portland community, securing over $300,000 from 6,831 individual donors in a public subscription drive. Mercy also received nearly $240,000 in federal funds for furnishings and equipment.

The new facility opened with 150 beds and 36 bassinets in 1943, hailed as one of the most advanced of its kind in northern New England. The old Queen’s Hospital buildings were kept for housing and classrooms for the 140 students then enrolled in the School of Nursing. The new expansion was formally dedicated on March 18 and 19, 1943 by Bishop McCarthy. The additional space was soon put to use: by 1946 Mercy Hospital was operating at 92% capacity.

To meet the demand, Mercy expanded again with the construction of an eight-story wing, occupied in 1951. The new addition included an Emergency Department (what today would be called an Emergency Room), although it would not be open on a 24-hour basis until 1964.

As before, the surrounding community had contributed to the fundraising campaign for the expansion, providing around $600,000 of the $2.25 million invested. On October 21, 1951, the Portland Press Herald published a special piece detailing the additions. One headline trumpeted the “Revolutionary Telephone System” installed in the building, which boasted a brand-new system of 110 phones dedicated to inter-hospital communication. In addition, hospital staff now enjoyed the latest pneumatic tubes for transmission of messages and prescriptions.

Mercy’s expansion allowed it to continue to be at the forefront of twentieth-century medical enhancements. X-Ray technology achieved perhaps the greatest attention after the Second World War. In 1948, a new School of X-Ray Technology accepted its first students, with Patricia Kane as the first graduate. Under Sister Mary Emily Burns R.N.R.T., supervisor of the hospital’s X-Ray Department, the school achieved accreditation by the American Registry of X-Ray Technicians in 1957. Several new drugs and medical techniques were introduced during the period. In 1956, Mercy opened a Diagnostic Tumor clinic. In the early 1960s, Mercy could take advantage of advances in cardiac surgery and preventative health breakthroughs. By the mid-1960s, cardiac training for nurses included work with defibrillators.

By 1965, Mercy had expanded from 25 beds to 285. Almost 500 full-time and part time Sisters and lay employees staffed the hospital. To help manage it all, the Sisters hired an assistant lay administrator, Joseph Faletra. As the Sisters celebrated the centennial of their founding in Maine that year, Mercy Hospital was providing a greater variety of services than ever before.

A wealth of new equipment enabled the enlarged staff of the radiology department to access, according to the annual report, “cine-filming equipment…a standard radiographic table; a Franklin head unit and new therapy machine.” Other enhancements improved health outcomes for growing numbers of patients. A Central Sterile Supply using gas sterilized 1,000 thermometers per day (before the advent of disposable covers). Mercy also boasted a newly rebuilt and re-equipped orthopedic treatment suite. Other technological improvements included a radioisotope scanner, operating microscope and other instruments for microsurgery of the middle ear, and mobile equipment for cancer chemotherapy. The growing physical therapy staff used the latest ultra-sonic equipment, electrical stimulation, cervical traction, infrared and diathermy treatments.

In 1965, Mercy treated 7,000 adult and pediatric patients and delivered 1,200 newborns (100 of them premature). The hospital also referred 12,000 outpatients, treated 7,000 Emergency Room visits, and over 4,000 clinic visits. Staff performed over 4,000 surgical procedures.

Mercy’s commitment to providing affordable care to the community led it to depend on donations to balance the books. In 1965, the hospital’s total operating expenses of $2.6 million outstripped collectable income by $200,000. The hospital made up the balance through several efforts, including the Catholic Charities Drive, which collected around $40,000.

In 1968, Mercy marked its Silver Jubilee, commemorating a half-century of service to the community. Further growth and specialization continued over the next quarter century. In 1970, Mercy opened the School of Anesthesia, and in 1979 established a Special Care Unit (Intensive Care in today’s terms). Mercy expanded again in 1982, and the hospital added a new inpatient unit for the treatment of alcohol and drug addiction. The Recovery Center became an increasingly important part of the hospital’s role in the community. The center had a long gestation period.

In the 1960s, Mary Desmond oversaw social services at the hospital, coordinating with city and state welfare agencies. Desmond and other staff noticed that many patients—particularly those receiving charity care—had what a 1968 hospital publication called “social problems” and that they often returned to Mercy after their discharge “to see a house officer, a nurse, and aide—all friends who extended a helping hand in time of need.” Desmond noted that Mercy’s charity was often a key factor in these patients’ full recovery. “Many of the people who must be considered as charity patients are alcoholics, and those who have personality disorders, suicidal tendencies or mental disorders. Trying to force them to meet financial obligations would defeat many of the medical accomplishments.”

The entire facility underwent a renovation in the 1980s, but Mercy’s greatest expansion occurred at the beginning of the twenty-first century. In 2003, a new CEO of Mercy Health System, Eileen Skinner, oversaw plans for a new, larger Fore River campus. The first stage of the project culminated in a 42-acre facility that opened in 2008. The new campus contained advanced new facilities, diagnostic imaging, and The Birthplace.

Mercy continues to play a major role in meeting greater Portland’s medical needs, especially among underprivileged communities. As of its 2018 Centennial, Mercy’s Emergency Room treats over 20,000 patients every year, and the hospital’s specialists play an important part in the only statewide health delivery organization in Maine. Mercy now runs Mercy Primary Care practices across Cumberland County, including Gorham, Portland, Falmouth, Yarmouth, and Windham. Mercy programs, such as McAuley Residence fills a need for a comprehensive approach for substance use disorders with housing for families. Another important outreach program, Gary’s House, provides gracious space for patients and/or families whose loved one is undergoing medical care. Each program is a treasured resource for members of the community.