By Dave Schwab
Scripps Mercy, San Diego’s first and only Catholic hospital, is celebrating its 125th anniversary this year.
Much has changed since July 9, 1890 when Sister Mary Michael Cummings, on behalf of the Sisters of Mercy, opened the five-bed St. Joseph’s Dispensary above a men’s clothing store in downtown San Diego at the corner of Sixth Avenue and H (now Market) for a cost of $50. Hours later, the facility admitted its first patient, malaria victim John O’Connell, who was treated successfully and discharged after a 13-day stay.
A year later, the facility relocated to a 10-acre site in Hillcrest on University Avenue between Sixth and Eighth avenues. It opened a new six-story hospital under the name Mercy Hospital in 1924, when it moved to its current location at Fifth Avenue and Washington Street.
The facility joined the Scripps Health system in 1995, and today Scripps Mercy Hospital includes campuses in Hillcrest and Chula Vista.
A century and a quarter later, Scripps Mercy’s mission remains unchanged: to provide superior health care services in a caring environment and to make a positive, measurable difference in the health of individuals in the communities served.
What distinguishes the hospital and sets it apart?
“We have a special group of people that are committed to this work, this institution,” Scripps Mercy chief executive Tom Gammiere said. “We have great physicians, many of whom we’ve trained and who’ve stayed — or come back. We’ve also had great supporters over time.”
Gammiere noted community outreach has always been an important part of the hospital’s mission.
“We’re a good neighbor in Hillcrest,” he said. “We love being here. It’s our neighborhood.”
“Scripps Mercy remains committed to serving San Diego’s downtown community meeting their needs — which are growing,” added Sister Mary Jo Anderson, a member of the board of trustees for Scripps Health who retired as chief operating officer of the Scripps Health system after a 20-plus year career.
Scripps Mercy is a Catholic hospital owned by Scripps Health, a secular organization. It is staffed by employees of Scripps Health. It is also listed in The Official Catholic Directory, often referred to as the Kenedy Directory.
The Diocese of San Diego permitted the sale of Mercy Hospital from Catholic Health Care West (now Dignity Health) to Scripps Health in June 1995, only if it remained a Catholic hospital.
Scripps Mercy operates as a Catholic health care organization, meaning it follows the Ethical and Religious Directives for Catholic Health Care Services. As such, the hospital is under the jurisdiction of the Bishop of San Diego on matters of faith and morals.
Though Scripps Mercy is a Catholic hospital, it has a long tradition of treating everyone regardless of their religious affiliation, Sister Anderson stressed.
“It’s a faith-based hospital,” she said. “We adhere to the ethical and religious directory of Catholic hospitals. Some think that means only that we don’t do abortions. But it is really a whole theme of compassion and care, prayer, and a belief in the spiritual role in healing people.”
Anderson said the hospital now even caters to the needs of Muslims, offering them space to pray five times daily.
“We’ve offered to supply them with prayer rugs,” Gammiere said, noting that “we want to be open and welcoming to all beliefs.”
“Never in our history have we ever tried to convert anyone,” Anderson said, pointing out, in the early days of San Diego history, that Scripps Mercy was the only place where Jewish doctors could practice.
“Today, we employ doctors from the third-generation of their families,” Gammiere said.
Speaking of generations of involvement, Lynn Silva is a lifelong Scripps Mercy Hospital volunteer. She is among the fourth of five generations in her family who have lent their selfless devotion and tireless dedication to aiding the hospital in fulfilling its mission.
“My husband and his mom and grandmother and myself and my mother were all born here,” Silva said. “Our children were born here, as well as two of our five grandchildren.”
Silva has been a Scripps Mercy volunteer since age 14 when she started out as a “candy striper,” a volunteer wearing red-and-white striped uniforms who assisted nurses.
“I learned to just love Scripps Mercy and I’m lucky to be a part of it,” Silva said of her experience, adding that she’s volunteered ever since, even chairing the hospital’s large charity fundraising gala at one point.
“Volunteering is extremely important to me and my family,” Silva said, noting the history of her family, and the hospital, are intertwined.
Sister Anderson and Scripps Mercy chief executive Gammiere know each other well. She hired him for his current position.
“Sister brought me in to do many things,” he said, acknowledging that when he expressed concern he might not be the right person for the job, Anderson told him, “It’s not a job — it’s a calling.”
“That’s the reason why I’m doing this,” Gammiere said. He adds that he learned from the sisters and their hospital “ministry” that the work being done caring for other people’s health needs is “what we’re being called to do. That’s why people stay here and embrace Scripps Mercy.”
From its earliest days, Scripps Mercy has been on the leading edge of health care. In 1890, the first cesarean section recorded on the West Coast was performed at St. Joseph’s. In 1904, it opened San Diego’s first training school for nurses, a three-year college that produced 1,550 graduates before closing in 1970. It is also home to San Diego’s longest-established graduate medical education program, and was the first hospital west of the Mississippi to earn accreditation from the American College of Surgeons.
Today, Scripps Mercy Hospital features a wide range of medical services offered in technologically advanced facilities. These include the Conrad Prebys Emergency & Trauma Center, a minimally invasive robotic surgery program and a nationally designated center of excellence for bariatric surgery. Scripps Mercy is also a certified STEMI receiving center (for fast and effective treatment of heart attacks) and offers cancer services such as the Woltman Family Infusion Center and the O’Toole Breast Care Center.
At its two hospital campuses in fiscal year 2014, Scripps Mercy had 115,703 emergency room visits, 3,615 newborn deliveries and 9,415 patient visits to Mercy Clinic (an outpatient care clinic on the Scripps Mercy campus that serves at-risk populations, including the disabled and working poor). Scripps Mercy has 684 licensed beds, 1,051 affiliated physicians and is staffed by 2,824 employees of Scripps Health.
Scripps Mercy invests significant resources into the communities it serves. In FY 2014, Scripps Mercy Hospital devoted $115 million to community benefit programs in the communities of central San Diego and South County, some of the neediest populations in the region. Scripps Mercy Hospital accounts for more than two-thirds of Scripps’ overall charity care.
Recognized as a leader in prevention, diagnosis and treatment, Scripps is also at the forefront of clinical research, genomic medicine and wireless health care. With three highly respected graduate medical education programs, Scripps is a longstanding member of the Association of American Medical Colleges. Scripps hospitals are consistently ranked by U.S. News & World Report among the nation’s best and Scripps is regularly recognized by Fortune, Working Mother magazine and AARP as one of the best places in the nation to work.
Scripps Mercy, the region’s longest-established hospital, celebrated its 125th anniversary July 9, the date when its first patient was admitted in 1890.
A community celebration open to the public will be held on Saturday, July 11, from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on the front lawn of the hospital, at 4077 Fifth Ave. More information can be found at scripps.org.
—Contact Dave Schwab at email@example.com.