Kuhn hospital workers gathering for reunion

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Former colleagues at the old Kuhn Memorial State Hospital are getting together for a summer reunion 20 years after its closing.

Retired family nurse practitioner Eva Ford and others who worked at what was also known as “Charity Hospital” decided it was time in the midst of talk from Washington that the country is on the cusp of a new health care plan. They want to share memories of a time when they believed health care was different.

A timeline

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• 1833 — Abraham Beech Reading builds his mansion where the former Kuhn Memorial State Hospital sits

• 1842 — After Reading lost his home due to financial troubles, Dr. George K. Birchett operates the mansion as a private hospital

• 1847 — City of Vicksburg buys the property and operates it as the City Hospital

• 1878 — The yellow fever epidemic kills 16 physicians, and the Sisters of Mercy take over operations for the next 27 years

• 1901 — Daughters of the Confederacy begin opeartions of an old soldiers’ home in an annex of the hospital property

• 1910-11 — The first medical school in conjunction with the University of Mississippi opens at the hospital

• 1956 — The city deeds the land to the state

• 1959 — Charity Hospital at Kuhn opens with a $400,000 endowment from Lee Kuhn’s estate

• 1989 — Kuhn closes

• 1994 — The state gives the property back to the city

• 1996 to 1999 — The city sells the property to Frank Lassiter of Lassiter Associates in Baton Rouge

• 2000 — Bob Pitts purchases the property from Lassiter

• 2001 — Pitts donates the property to the Esther Stewart Buford Foundation of Yazoo City, current owner


“We’re at a point where we want to do something for someone else because that’s what we were all about,” said Ford, president of the newly developed Kuhn Memorial Hospital Reunion Club. “That’s one of those things that brings us to this point — that commitment, that concern for mankind, that love for one another.” The group began meeting last month.

“We had great memories at Kuhn,” said Emma Lee Wilson, former business manager. “We were like family. We had a big staff.”

Wilson remembered the hospital as multifunctional.

“We had a large burn center, occupational therapy, a physical therapy department,” she added. “The only time we ever shipped anybody out was when it was life-threatening and there wasn’t a whole lot we could do for them.”

The 192-bed state charity hospital was opened in 1959, thanks to a $400,000 endowment from the estate of Lee Kuhn, a merchant for whom the hospital was named. That was before federal and federal-state programs such as Medicare and Medicaid were invented. The state hospital here and others in Natchez and Laurel received appropriations from the Legislature to do the best they could in providing indigent care.

Before the property on Openwood Street, now Martin Luther King Boulevard, became a charity hospital, it operated as City Hospital, which opened in 1847, five years after the property turned into a private hospital. In 1833, Abraham Beech Reading had built a mansion where Kuhn sits. Debt later saw him lose the home to the city.

Kuhn provided free to low-cost health care to many people, mainly Medicaid patients after that program was created in 1965. Patients came from all over central Mississippi. In 1990, former Kuhn medical director and obstetrician Dr. Jennifer Hicks estimated that 90 percent of her patients were on Medicaid. During the mid-1960s, it was reported that the hospital had served 3,000 to 3,500 patients annually.

Wilson remembered the hospital had employed many types of specialists, as well as doctors from the Philippines, Cuba and Korea.

“We had some real outstanding workers out there,” said J.L. Mitchell, who worked as an orderly at Kuhn for 11 years “They cared for the patients. We worked and smiled together.”

At a planning meeting last week, the one-time colleagues reminisced about their work and planned a reunion for Aug. 7 at the Vicksburg Convention Center.

“One day, we delivered 24 babies,” Ford said. “(Patients) were in the car, in the waiting room. They were on stretchers in the hallways. They were on the floor. Within that 24 hours, we delivered 24 babies.”

“I get reminiscent of all the good times like eating in the cafeteria,” said Richard Hicks, a licensed practical nurse for 17 years at Kuhn. “You just don’t get that anywhere.”

Wilson added, “ The food was made from scratch. They used to make those good rolls.”

In addition to medical service, the hospital was also a training center for nurses and resident doctors.

“When you trained at the hospital, you were part of the staff,” said Ford who trained at the hospital while studying to be a license practical nurse. “You provided a labor resource while training.”

Interns worked alongside doctors and registered nurses, as well as with about 30 state inmate trusties, who for a time were assigned there as part of a satellite work center.

All of this was offered more than 20 years ago at Kuhn before it and the state’s two other charity hospitals, Matty Hersee in Meridian and South Mississippi State in Laurel, were ordered closed in 1989. The Mississippi Legislature and then-Gov. Ray Mabus decided against continuing the hospitals, instead shifting the $7 million spent annually on them to the state’s Medicaid program. Medicaid provided about $3 for every state dollar spent on health care programs for the poor, so the thinking was dollars for indigent services could be quadrupled and care would come from private, church or public hospitals, which still exist with county support in some parts of Mississippi.

Also operating in Vicksburg at the time Kuhn closed were Vicksburg Medical Center and Mercy Hospital-Street Memorial. Street Memorial had been the first privately owned hospital in Mississippi and the Sisters of Mercy, a religious order, took over from its physician founders in 1942.

News of the hospital’s closing was a surprise to some of the employees.

“When they first started to close the hospital, I never shall forget, they said slow down on the admission, but we didn’t know they were going to close the hospital then,” Ford said. “It was 1982. I couldn’t figure out why. I had a satellite clinic in Mayersville, and we had a patient up there who was having a heart attack. We put that patient in the car. I closed the clinic up there, and I hauled him down that highway taking that patient to the hospital. I didn’t want that patient to die on me. When we got there, they asked, ‘why didn’t we take him to the University.’ I said, ‘This was the closest hospital that he could afford.’ I didn’t understand why. I found out they wanted to show there was not a need for the hospital. All along, they were trying to show there was no need for the hospital.” Admissions were slowed continuously after that, she said.

“Back during that time, it was the beginning of the struggle of the private hospitals and it was a way for them to stay alive,” said Ford, who began her medical career in 1963. She unsuccessfully had led a group in the late 1980s to keep the hospital open.

“It was a sad time,” Wilson added. “Not only for the employees, but for the surrounding counties and the rural areas because they had no place to go.”

As the number of patients dwindled, patients visited the Warren County Health Department and the Vicksburg Warren Community Health Center. It was also reported that those who could not afford medical treatment just simply did not go. More than 100 employees lost their jobs, but some were able to find work at other hospitals. A year after the close, the state inmates who had worked at Kuhn while it was open were left to maintain the facility.

Since, the empty, dilapidated facility has been dormant.

Ownership has changed hands a few times, and the building now belongs to a Yazoo City-based outreach program called the Esther Stewart Buford Foundation, named for the late mother of local business developer and program co-founder Pete Buford.

The foundation has a focus of building houses for low-income families in Yazoo County.

“We have built 45 houses in Yazoo County,” Executive Director and co-founder Linda Smith said. “Our plans are to expand to Warren County.”

They hope the site will be a convalescent home, she said, but a lack of funding has halted planning.

“It’s just been hard lately to get layered funding,” Smith said adding that the foundation is currently seeking federal grants and private donations. She estimates nearly $10 million is needed for the project.

Buford agreed. “Money is hard to come by,” he said.

Members of the reunion committee hope to see changes to the property soon.

“It’s depressing,” Ford said. “I would like for that building to be a museum. There are a lot of archives and a lot of information that could go into a museum. It would be wonderful for the people of Vicksburg.”

Wilson added, “It’s sad to see it just sitting there knowing the history.”

Contact Manivanh Chanprasith at mchan@vicksburgpost.com