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 ambulances began rolling into the South County Hospital parking lot on the afternoon of May 19, 1973.
They carried the 11 surviving passengers of the Comet, a 50-foot charter fishing boat that had sunk seven miles off Point Judith. They also bore a grim cargo — those who had not survived.
It was a day that Emergency Department personnel would never forget.
“They set up a morgue [in] a conference room,” remembers Irene Leonard, a registered nurse who worked at the hospital from 1972 to 2014.
The ER was flooded with reporters and anxious loved ones, she recalled. “A lot of the [patients], they didn’t have the right IDs plus they — the families — didn’t speak English.”
The Comet disaster took more than a dozen lives and prompted the hospital to establish a heli-pad the following year, so that rescue helicopters could reach it quickly. Since then helicopters have not only brought patients to the ER, but also transferred them to regional medical centers.
During the Blizzard of 1978, a helicopter delivered IV fluids and medication. “I’ll never forget the helicopter coming in and giving us supplies,” said Lee Ann Quinn, director of infection prevention and control, who was working as a nurse at the time. “Because it was a saving grace.”
A constant evolution
In the last 100 years, one of the hospital’s most vital functions has been emergency treatment. Since the brick hospital was built at 100 Kenyon Ave. in 1925, the Emergency Department has evolved from a room accessed only by an exterior bell to a suite of state-of-the-art treatment rooms.
In the 1920s, the hospital had its own ambulance, which was little more than a conveyance. In 1928, Board of Trustees member Theakston de Coppet donated a new ambulance to replace the hospital’s older vehicle. It made 50 trips a year totaling 1,000 miles.
In 1939, the hospital got out of the ambulance business when the South County Ambulance Corps was formed. The corps, organized to serve South Kingstown, Narragansett, North Kingstown, Exeter, Richmond and Charlestown, raised $500 to buy a Packard ambulance on a heavy-duty chassis. Gradually the towns formed their own emergency response teams, and the organization disbanded when the town of South Kingstown took over its function.
In the early days, the hospital provided emergency coverage with a night bell system. It was the mid-1970s before true 24-hour coverage was available.
Dr. Timothy Drury, an ER physician from 1978 to his retirement in 2016, helped usher the department into the modern era.
While a resident at Rhode Island Hospital, Drury had met Dr. Chris Tsonas, a fellow resident who had begun working in the South County Hospital ER with Dr. Claude Koproski. Prior to them, the hospital had no full-time physicians, using Navy doctors from Quonset Point.
After Drury completed his Public Health Corps service at the Wood River Health Center, he joined them, in 1978.
The facility was one trauma/cardiac room and three “cubby holes” converted from closets, he said. “It was really small. We saw tons of people.”
In 1977, the hospital ER was treating 16,419 people annually; by 1980, when Drury became director, that number had risen to 18,353.
In the earlier days, a shift might be staffed by one secretary, a nurse and a technologist.
Joyce MacManus, who has worked at South County since 1971, remembers that as an X-ray technologist she was part of the ER team.
“There was no chain of command … it was just such a tight, close community of people, and I was very much a part of it because I worked the evening shift alone,” she recalled.
“It was more of a family atmosphere,” added Leonard, who was assigned to the ER one night to fill in and ended up staying nearly 30 years.
MacManus remembers several grisly accidents when she was pressed into service to assist, memories that still haunt her today.
“There were no seat belts, no air bags. The ambulances would bring the people here to stabilize them” before transferring them to Rhode Island Hospital. “We saw a ton of bad trauma … It was a family. We pulled each other through.”
Drury was able to put the difficult days behind him.
“Some people remember that stuff and some people don’t, and I’m one of the ‘don’t remembers,’ ” Drury said.
Shortly after Drury was hired, Dr. Robert Conrad, the surgeon then in charge of the ER, designed a new facility. The new 12-bed ER was part of a $6 million project from 1979 to 1981 that included new clinical labs, expanded X-ray facilities and a 57-bed addition.
Conrad passed the torch to Tsonas and Koproski, who both left to practice in Florida. Drury became ER director, a position he would retain until his retirement.
By 1980, the ER was staffed with three nurses, a technologist and a physician. The ER expanded again when Express Care opened in 1986.
One familiar face at Express Care was the late Dr. John J. Walsh, who began working there after retiring as the hospital’s chief of surgery. Walsh, with his avuncular manner and wealth of knowledge, quickly became a patient favorite.
Another longtime ER physician was Dr. Harold (Sandy) Falconer, a pediatrician who began working in the ER in 1971 and now practices in Maine.
In 2003 the ER was remodeled again, this time under Drury’s direction. The new facility features 24 private treatment rooms.
Drury brought in a nurse practitioner, Pamela Burlingame, and by the time he left in 2016 there were six on the staff. “That was a big battle,” he recalled, because the medical staff was initially skeptical of the position.
Dr. Conrad hired the hospital’s first physician’s assistant, Rick Moffitt, in 1983 to work with him in the OR. Today Moffit remains a familiar face on the ER staff.
While the Emergency Department remains one of the hospital’s most visible functions, many patients don’t realize that the physicians work for a separate organization that contracts with the hospital.
Dr. Koproski sold the company, R.I. Emergency Physicians, to Dr. Drury when he left in 1980. When Drury retired three years ago, he sold it to a national organization, TeamHealth.
As the region grew, so did the ER visits. By 1987, more than 23,000 people a year were seeking emergency care. By 1993, that number had topped 30,000. In fiscal year 2018, the hospital recorded 27,594 emergency visits and 24,811 visits to Express Care.
Drury has fond memories of his many years in the ER.
“I liked the excitement of it,” Drury said. “I liked the call schedule. When you’re off you’re off, and when you’re on you’re on. ... I liked the episodic nature of it, and the acuteness of it.”