Editor's Note: Founded in 1919, this year marks the 100th anniversary for South County Health. As part of our community outreach efforts, The Independent has partnered with the organization on a series of stories related to the history and mission of South County Health. They will run periodically in our newspapers this year and will appear online on our website at IndependentRI.com.
WAKEFIELD, R.I. — The year was 1945. Even though World War II was nearly over, South County Hospital, like hospitals across the country, suffered from crippling staff shortages.
On May 31 at 9:20 p.m., twin babies were delivered prematurely at the hospital by Wickford physician Albert C. Henry. The babies were boys; one weighed a pound, the other one pound, 14 ounces.
The mother, who was not identified, was just six months into her pregnancy. The smallest baby died shortly after birth. But the larger of the two hung on, despite gaining no weight for the first two weeks of his life.
The surviving baby would need round-the-clock care. Dr. Henry would later credit the infant’s survival to the nurses who worked tirelessly “during a time when the hospital overcame obstacles of staff nurse shortages.” Mrs. Eleanor Jefferds attended the baby during the day; Grace Arnold was the night duty nurse, supervised by floor nurse Jean MacFarlane.
For the first three days, the hospital fed the baby whiskey and water in a medicine dropper every four hours. After that, he was given diluted milk – one ounce to three ounces of water – every four hours. The baby took only a half-ounce to an ounce of liquid at each feeding.
The surviving baby was nicknamed Inky, for Incubator. After two weeks, he began putting on weight. When he was discharged in September, Inky was three months old and weighed just five pounds.
Today, although South County Hospital’s obstetricians routinely deliver twins, premature or high-risk babies are sent to the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit at Women & Infants Hospital in Providence. They still can require months of incubation and monitoring.
The story of Inky is just one more incredible tale in the history of what was then known as a small country hospital.
Prior to the opening of the Cottage Hospital in 1919, women in the area were giving birth in their homes, attended by the Visiting Nurses and/or a local doctor. But as soon as Dr. John Paul Jones opened the doors of the house that would serve as a hospital, women began to flock to it.
Soon more women were delivering at the hospital than it could accommodate. At one point the seven-bedroom house on Kenyon Avenue was crowded with six women and their newborns. In five years, the Cottage Hospital handled 100 maternity cases.
When a committee began fund-raising for a new hospital, a second-floor maternity wing was one of its selling points. “People are coming to understand pretty well nowadays that the one place for childbirth is the hospital,” opined a PR brochure about the plans.
For the next four decades, little would change in the care of mothers and their newborns. A woman in labor could expect a dose of morphine right before delivery, to cut the pain. Women were kept in the hospital, in bed, for as long as 10 days, and counseled to get plenty of rest when they returned home.
A mother delivering at South County Hospital at the beginning of the Baby Boom, in 1948, was sent home with a brochure from the state Health Department that encouraged breastfeeding but advised that mothers without sufficient breast milk could bottle-feed, provided they took care to keep the bottles and equipment sterile. One mother would be advised by Wakefield physician W. H. Tully Jr. to supplement bottle feeding (of evaporated milk and boiled water) with a ½ tablespoon of orange juice daily. The baby, the Health Department noted, should be vaccinated “early in life” - against diphtheria and whooping cough. Vaccines did not yet exist for measles, rubella, polio, or chicken pox.
The mother also would be sent home with a brochure from the hospital recording its incredible uptick in deliveries – 434 in the previous year. Consider the increase: In 1926, the hospital delivered 60 babies a year. By 1928, that number had risen to 83. In 1938-39, 168 babies were born at the hospital. But in 1947, the summer months alone saw 99 newborns – 50 girls and 49 boys. The post-World War II baby boom had begun.
It would be 1961 before the hospital’s newborn census began to taper off. When hospital President Donald L. Ford noted the 401 babies born in the prior year in his 1962 annual report, those “eight fewer babies” than the previous year would cap off a sustained period of growth.
The next major change would come four years later, in 1965, with the arrival of board-certified obstetrician Joseph O’Neill.
A New Jersey native and graduate of Georgetown, O’Neill came to Rhode Island to do his Naval service at Quonset Point Naval Air Station. “There was nobody in obstetrics in South County,” he said, and he and his wife thought the area would be a good place to raise their family.
They bought an old carriage house on Ocean Road in Narragansett, and Dr. O’Neill set up shop in a small medical building near the Dillon Rotary in that town. In 1970, he bought a house across the street from the hospital and converted it into a medical office.
He was joined in 1972 by his brother, Dr. Robert O’Neill, who also served at Quonset Point after training at the University of Pennsylvania. Just two years later, two other doctors set up a separate practice – Dr. Martin Schwartz and Dr. Robert Curhan.
Dr. Curhan was a practicing obstetrician in Detroit whose wife was a native Rhode Islander. Her entreaties to move back to her home state gained new urgency when, one day when Dr. Curhan was treating a patient in his Detroit office, someone burst into the building with a handgun.
He joined forces with Dr. Schwartz, a graduate of Jefferson Medical College in Philadelphia who had just begun practice. (Dr. Schwartz died in 2013 and Dr. Curhan in 2015.)
Although they may have been perceived as rivals of the O’Neills, Dr. Joseph O’Neill said he and his brother welcomed the other practice.
“The numbers were on the way up,” O’Neill recalled of deliveries at this time. “So it was almost perfect that these guys wanted to come on board.”
The demand for gynecological surgery also was increasing, Dr. O’Neill said. “We gradually ramped up and got busier. At one point the four of us did 27 percent of the surgery at this hospital.”
In 1976, the hospital delivered 359 babies. A year later, that number had grown to 492, a 37 percent increase.
In the 1980s, those numbers would increase dramatically as South County experienced a mini baby boom. In 1981, the hospital delivered 525 babies; in 1982, 530. The region was growing and so was demand for obstetrical services.
But by 1986, births had dipped, to 376, then rose to 405 the following year and dipped again to 401 in 1988. Behind these shifting numbers was a changing obstetrical landscape.