These statements were heard more than once at Tuesday’s Lunch with Books — “OVGH & OVMC Memories” — at the Ohio County Library.
I learned of the program — being planned by the library and the OVMC alumni association — when I wrote about the rescue and subsequent burial of the School of Nursing’s skeletal remains last October, and decided then I had to be there. That story had given me a glimpse of how passionate a small number of the hospital’s community could be, and I wanted to experience what a room full of alumni and employees could bring to the table.
I didn’t have to wait long before being struck by the camaraderie and love shared by those in the room.
A ROOM FULL OF STORIES
A packed house of nurses, staff and doctors came together to reminisce about the Ohio Valley Medical Center and what its closing last fall meant to them. Hugs and handshakes were given as former coworkers and friends greeted each other before the program. The library staff had to bring out extra chairs to accommodate the crowd, and still, many folks in the back had to stand, confirming the importance of this program for all those associated with the hospital.
While I waited for the program to begin, Nancy Morris, who was sitting near where I was leaning, offered me an empty chair. She was the first to tell me she was born at OVMC and the first to express to me how difficult the closing has been for her.
“I was born there, I candy-striped there, and I worked there for a total of 30 years. I intended to die there. OV was my whole life,” Nancy told me. Her words floored me, and I knew — even before the program had even officially began — that I was in for an emotional ride.
Mary McKinley, who had many titles at OVMC — from student to director of education — hosted the “in memoriam” program and began by giving a decade-by-decade history of the hospital.
“Everything is held together by stories,” Mary told the crowd, referencing a favorite quote of hers by Barry Lopez. She used this quote as a stepping stone to encouraging everyone to share their personal stories. It became clear that attending the School of Nursing was something several of the audience members wanted to talk about.
Opening in 1892 and closing in 1988, the School of Nursing was the first of its kind in the state of West Virginia, and many in the room had been students. Little tidbits and facts only those who attended the school knew about were shared for the first time with the public.
As I listened to the stories, I began to feel a connection with the nurses who spoke. The topics rotated between a bittersweet mixture of humor in their shared experiences and mourning for the loss of the institution.
I learned about the very early curfews for students and how there were “ways around” those curfews if you tried. And, how — in a very different time from today — women who attended the school could not wear their uniform pants when they walked north past 16th Street into the downtown area or when riding the bus in town. It was dresses only.
I learned about doctors who kept lit cigars in safe places, made their rounds in the hospitals and then came back to take another hit when they had a free moment.
Who would have known that topless sunbathing was something that happened on the roof of the hospital at one point in its history? “You were not allowed to talk about it. If you got sunburned, don’t say a word,” one woman remembered, evoking the first of many bursts of laughter.
Dr. Michael Blatt spoke about a grand piano that had been purchased at some point by the nurses and had been wasting away. Over time, Dr. Blatt and other staff had taken apart, reconditioned and put the piano back together during any downtime they had over the years.
“It was a sort of metaphor,” Dr. Blatt told the audience. “Here’s an old piano that had been revitalized. It was gorgeous, and it still sits in the lobby today.” There was an audible sound of disbelief from the audience at the mental image of the piano — that had been given new life — sitting untouched in the empty building.
I joined several in wiping away tears when Barbara Lewine got up to speak about her father, Dr. Robert Lewine, who was a member of the teaching faculty of Pediatrics and Family Practice Residency Program. Dr. Lewine was so well known among the nurses and staff that the saying “I’m Dr. Lewine, and your baby is fine” was a motto of his that many remember. If you were a new mother, these were the words you would want to hear.
His daughter went on to express her frustration in the closing of the hospital. “My father is rolling over in his grave with sadness, as is our entire family, for what has happened to the hospital. It is heartbreaking, it is definitely heartbreaking.”
It’s impossible to only reminisce happily about a place when its closure makes little sense to those left behind — those hurting and trying to heal. Speakers mentioned that Alecto Health Services has already sold the building they closed, and that West Virginia congressmen and senators tried to keep it open — even offering to buy it — but to no avail.
Terry Jill Bonar from Warwood, who gestured to the room, crying, said, “These people raised me, and what happened to our hospital breaks my heart. I can’t continue on as a nurse anywhere else. I was an OV nurse, and I’ll die an OV nurse.”
I had to catch up with Terry after the program because her speech was so moving. She was one of the younger nurses in the room at age 55, and she graduated from the School of Nursing in 1985. “My instructors are here. The ones who inspired me in the operating room are here,” said Terry, explaining why the event was so emotional for her. “If I can’t be a nurse at OV, I can’t be a nurse anywhere.” Terry is taking that to heart and embarking on a completely new career path in her attempts to heal in the aftermath of OVMC closing. She is planning to be a florist in the future.
Mary McKinley made sure to mention what heroes the library staff at the Ohio County Library have been throughout the whole process.
“My first fear when I learned about the closing was that all the artifacts would disappear,” said Mary, referring to how she and the Alumni Association had worked hard to have a permanent display of the building’s rich history in the hospital.
Uniforms, board meeting notes, yearbooks and a flip display of all the class photos of graduating classes from the nursing school were some of the items the library stepped up to rescue — with library archivist Laura Carroll quite literally stepping up. Her coworkers, Sean Duffy and Erin Rothenbuehler, removed what they could from the display and loaded it into a van, but it was Laura who had the honor of maneuvering it through the alley.
“At one point, a bolt fell out — it was very unwieldy — and I was worried. I also saw someone I knew driving by,” Laura laughs, recounting her journey of pushing a piece of Wheeling’s history to its new destination.
The flip display of photographs was in the library’s boardroom during Tuesday’s event, and that is where many went to look at pictures of their own class or to search for others.
“Everyone who has gone to the school has mentioned it [the class photos]. It is very important to them,” Laura said.
Two women in the boardroom were looking for family members. The emotions were high as they found who they were looking for and as they told me about their family members’ accomplishments at OVMC.
‘I WAS BORN THERE. I HAD A BABY THERE’
It’s clearer than ever to me now what a loss OVMC is for the area. I, too, was born there. And I, too, had a baby there. I also drive past that massive empty building and under the bridge crosswalk every day, and every day I can’t believe that it is closed.
The nurses in the room got to hear doctors and staff thanking them for their service and telling them they were the reason for all of the hospital’s success.
The hospital had many accolades in its long existence. Just last June, it won the American Heart Association’s Gold Level Achievement Award, which recognized the hospital’s commitment to giving stroke patients the best care possible based on the latest research. How is the empty, dark building I drive by every day the same place?
“Everything is held together by stories,” Mary McKinley told us. Whether it was a story I heard at the event about the importance of having the first School of Nursing in the state of West Virginia in our city of Wheeling, or the simple story someone told of sled riding in the winter and then using the hospital’s hot air vent to warm up, it was apparent that there are countless stories for the OVMC and Wheeling community to share.
One accolade for the hospital that won’t come with a plaque on a wall or any official recognition at all is the feeling of community and family that many employees felt while working there.
“It’s good to have a little bit of closure,” Mary told me after the program, reflecting on the overwhelming success of the event. “Stories are important.” What was shared on Tuesday was one successful step toward holding the OVMC community together a little while longer.
• Kelly Strautmann lives out in the country of Cameron, West Virginia, and proofreads in the city of Wheeling. She has a supportive and talented husband and two ridiculous daughters who keep her busy and full of love.