Children’s ward, Denver General Hospital, 1907
Written by Pulitzer Prize winning author, Eileen Welsome, Healers and Hellraisers is the story of Denver Health’s first 150 years. The book describes the hospital's rough-and-tumble beginnings, its near-death in the 1950s, and its emergence as a model for the nation at the dawn of the 21st Century. Through epidemics and pandemics, economic recessions and depressions, Denver Health has endured. Today it serves one out of three residents of Denver and is widely considered the country’s preeminent leader in healthcare reform.
There has long been a connection between illness and poverty. Public hospitals have always served the role of caring for society’s most vulnerable citizens. 150 years ago Denver officials believed that caring for the poor and sick was an integral part of city government and its first hospital was established in 1860 in a house on the corner of Wazee and 16th Streets in what was then a rough-and-tumble frontier village. During its long and tumultuous history Denver Health was known by many names: City Hospital, Hotel for Invalids, Arapahoe County Hospital, and for much of its modern-day history, as Denver General.
In its early days, the Mile High city was not only a destination for gold seekers and fortune hunters; Denver’s clean air and dry climate provided relief for people stricken with tuberculosis. At the turn of the century, a typical hospital census was composed of hundreds of strangers with tuberculosis or influenza, as well as the indigent with no place else to go. It was referred to as the “Almshouse” and the “Pest House” because of the numbers of poor patients suffering from infectious and often incurable diseases. Poor sanitation and contaminated drinking water commonly resulted in outbreaks of typhoid fever and diphtheria. Death from smallpox, scarlet fever and whooping cough were commonplace. Treatments were often ineffective and recovery involved lengthy rehabilitation. In fact, patients who were discharged from the hospital often continued their convalescence at the “Poor Farm”, a branch of the hospital built on acreage northeast of Denver. Too sick to return to work and too poor to go home, they lived in simple cottages, grew their own vegetables and eked out a peaceful, but meager, existence.
In 1876, the year Colorado became a state, an investigator from the Rocky Mountain News described the county hospital as, “An institution always taxed to the utmost limit of its capacity by the multitude of indigent invalids flocking to Denver from the four quarters of the world, and yet so economically managed that no one can examine its bills for current expenses and claim that they are at all out of proportion to the immense service rendered.” The same can be said today. Although it is the largest Medicaid provider in the state and fully 46% of its patients have no health insurance, Denver Health has operated in the black every year since 1991.
Denver Health is now an independent governmental entity and continues to serve vulnerable populations that include: people without health insurance, the homeless, frail elderly, low-income families, refugees, pregnant women, newborns and children. It is a comprehensive, integrated health system with one million patient contacts a year. It is not only a place of “last resort” for countless Denver residents but it is increasingly a place of “first choice” for patients seeking world-class medical services provided in state-of the-art facilities.
Healers and Hellraisers is a history entwined with the history of Denver itself. This is a handsome, lavishly illustrated 188 page hard-bound volume that is a must-read for all Denver Health supporters.
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