Former Jewish Hospital staff say farewell to longtime facility

The Kingshighway entrance to the Jewish Hospital building still bears a menorah in the front window.

By David Baugher, Special to the Jewish Light

From his wheelchair, 98-year-old Dr. Llewellyn Sale, Jr., makes a quick visual sweep of the room.

“At one time just after World War I, we lived right next to the hospital on Parkview Avenue,” recalled Sale, an internal medicine physician who first saw Jewish Hospital as a patient in 1925 and would later go on to spend half a century as a doctor here. “I hate to see it go. There have been so many changes, I hardly recognize it.”

New Mt. Sinai Cemetery advertisement

Those changes will soon overtake the Kingshighway Building entirely. The old structure is set to come down this fall and Sale was among dozens who packed in for a chance to say goodbye to parts of Barnes-Jewish Hospital that have been there since before the Depression. The old facilities will drop as part of an extensive campuswide modernization effort expected to run until 2021. Demolition will see the end of the Steinberg and Yalem buildings along with the former nursing school and Queeny Tower.

The nearby Shoenberg Pavilion will remain intact through both phases of the project, which aims to clear space for new construction that will expand obstetrics, neonatal nurseries and the cancer program. The move will also create more private rooms and allow smoother interaction with Children’sHospital.

But that means the heart of the old medical center has to go. It’s the removal of edifices that, for many, represents not just a physical structure but also the legacy of pre-merger Jewish Hospital.

“I know that for some in the crowd it is going to be a little bittersweet,” said Rich Liekweg, president of the institution. “They’ve got unbelievable memories from the four walls of this hospital which have served this community for over 100 years.”

Liekweg said that the building has essentially been cleared of personnel.  Artifacts and important memorabilia are moving out; some will be placed in the new structure, perhaps through the inlaying of old bricks into the floor or walls of the rising facility.

The College of Nursing is expected to fall about the same time but that process won’t happen for a few months.

“With a building of this size, obviously there is a fair amount of internal infrastructure that has to be taken down first before we take down the exterior walls,” Liekweg said.

Sale isn’t the only one who has memories from the facility. Brenda Ernst worked here for 36 years, first arriving at the nursing school in 1958 fresh out of high school in Centralia, Ill.

“This was the first place I saw when I came here,” she said.

Ernst, who is not Jewish, would eventually become vice-president of nursing. She said it was sad to see it go but progress is progress.

“I just saw the picture downstairs of what’s going to happen when they take this building down,” she said. “It looks magnificent.”

Like Ernst, Pat Mueth arrived here straight from high school back in 1974 though even before that, she was a candy striper here. Later, she’d become a nurse technician and finally a nurse before entering the field of clinical informatics, where she started the first electronic medical records at the institution.

 “I took a different course from what I planned when I was in nursing school,” she said, “but as a result of doing that, I was able to go to every floor, teach all the nurses, all the physicians so I got to know all the ancillary departments. That’s why I know everybody.”

She even met her husband of 20 years here when he was director of IT.

“I’m looking forward to meeting up and reminiscing over the good old days with all my buddies here,” she said.

David Johnson, a housekeeping manager with the hospital, saw his son born here. Unfortunately, it was a stressful experience. Complications caused some scary moments.

“My wife is a neonatal intensive care nurse so when he crashed, she knew exactly what was happening,” he said. “The nursing staff, the physicians, were so compassionate, words cannot express it.”

A housekeeper stayed with his wife.

“She came in, talked to her, prayed with her, told her it was going to be OK, told her that Jewish Hospital is an amazing place and miracles happen here,” he said.

The couple needed one. The staff told them that their baby would have a 25 percent chance of survival – if he made it through the next 24 hours.

A day later, he was off the respirator and doing fine. He graduated from law school this year. Johnson remembers what happened as they were leaving the facility.

“My wife looked up at me and said, ‘Why don’t you work at this amazing hospital?’” he said. “A year later, I was working here.”

Darrell Barni, a senior carpenter at the hospital, joined up in 1980.  “There’s a lot of memories here, some good, some not so good,” he said.

The good ones include meeting his wife, a catering manager, here as well as celebrating the birth of a child. The overall working atmosphere was strongly positive too.

“People who worked at Jewish Hospital all say the same thing,” Barni said. “It was a great place to work and it was a great culture. It was fun.”

Though for Barni, there were sad memories in the building as well. His wife suffered from ovarian cancer.

“This is where she spent her final days,” he said. “She died up on five.”

Dianne Benz didn’t just come to the reunion. She also dressed the part, putting on her old nurse’s apron and even clipping on her old ID badge.

“This was like my entire life,” said Benz, who worked here from 1971 until 2010. “I feel that my blood, sweat and tears went into this building.”

While at nursing school here, Benz, a Catholic, even got an education in Judaism, joining a Jewish girl from a nearby dorm for a seder with her family.

“That was wonderful,” she remembered.

Standing amidst the crowd, Dr. Stephen Lefrak, an intensive care physician and pulmonologist, recalled the old hospital as a wonderful spot to make a career.

“Jewish Hospital was a very unusual place,” said Lefrak, who is a member of the Jewish community. “It was a great patient care place, a superb academic institution and yet, inside of that place, there were bonds and feelings between everyone who worked there, not just the doctors and nurses, but housekeeping, dietary, everybody.”

He called it an honor to have been able to have a job at the institution and was proud that Jewish Hospital premiered the first medical ICU in St. Louis. He also was philosophical about its passing and the relationships among the staff that called it home.

“That bond still exists. As long as we exist, it exists,” he said. “It’s not just a building. It’s really about people, our patients, our fellow workers.

“Of course you are always kind of sad but things are moving on,” he added. “When push comes to shove, the important thing isn’t buildings, it’s people.”