Thompson General Hospital turns 50

Congratulations to Thompson General Hospital on marking their 50th anniversary Aug. 1. It is an important milestone in the life of the community.

Kudos also to the Thompson Hospital Auxiliary, which marked its 40th anniversary, at the same time. The members of the auxiliary, as Burntwood Regional Health Authority (BRHA) chief executive officer Gloria King rightly points out, have tirelessly fundraised hundreds of thousand of dollars over the years for much needed hospital equipment. King says she always gets a good feeling when she hears the daily public address intercom announcement that the auxiliary-run gift shop in the hospital is open for another day's business.

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The present Thompson General Hospital is actually the third hospital Thompson has had, a fact that will come as a surprise perhaps to some newer residents of Thompson.

We're indebted to Blake Ellis, the communications co-ordinator of the Burntwood Regional Health Authority (BRHA) and a former editor of the Thompson Citizen, for his archival research on the early history of Thompson's three hospitals, which was on display at an anniversary open house and community barbecue at the hospital in conjunction with Manitoba Homecoming 2010 weekend July 31. The BRHA has operated the Thompson General Hospital since its creation as a regional health authority in 1997.

Early planning had the first four-bed hospital in the Inco camp in 1957. A hospital on the town site was to follow, with it readily accessible to the plant, some 1 miles away and also on the south side of the Burntwood River.

Temporary hospital accommodations after the camp hospital were arranged to be in a house on Poplar Crescent in the Juniper area. Poplar Crescent, of course, was also where they first home had been built on Thompson in the fall of 1958. Later, the house next to the temporary Poplar Crescent hospital was used as a nurses' residence.

The first two Thompson Hospital employees, Donald and Eileen MacDonald, began their employment Aug. 1, 1960. Donald was the hospital engineer and Eileen, or "Mrs. Mac" as she was affectionately known, was the head of the kitchen, housekeeping and laundry. The MacDonalds spent the next seven years living in a suite of the basement of the hospital until 1967.

As Mayor Tim Johnston noted in his remarks July 31 for the 50th anniversary celebration at the hospital, his late father, Dr. Blain Johnston, was not the first physician to ever work in Thompson, as is sometimes mistakenly thought to be the case, but he was among the earliest and certainly the premier pioneer founder of the local medical community with his selection by Inco in May 1957 for the permanent position of medical officer for Thompson.

Johnston, a graduate of the University of Manitoba's medical school, had begun flying once a week starting in February 1957 into the Inco work camp in Thompson from Snow Lake, where he was practicing medicine, to offer medial care here. There were more than 1,000 men in the Inco work camp at the time. Women were not allowed on the Inco work campsite, so Johnston had to be assisted by male nurses. He finally wound up his practice in Snow Lake and moved to Thompson in November 1957.

The temporary hospital on Poplar Crescent had no regular nurses for the first few months it was in operation, so Joan Johnston, Dr. Blain Johnston's wife, and Mayor Johnston's mother, who was a registered nurse, along with Joan Hambley, also a registered nurse, helped out.

The new 32-bed Thompson Hospital opened for business in October 1960. Dr. Luke Rustige and Dr. Harold Standing, both of whom had arrived earlier in the year, assisted Johnston, the chief of staff. By the end of 1960, two-thirds of the local population lived in the Inco work campsites, but the other third were already living on the Thompson townsite.

In April 1966, the Thompson Hospital moved from being a private hospital, operated by Inco, to a public provincial hospital under the jurisdiction of the Government of Manitoba and as such was renamed Thompson General Hospital. It would also mark the beginning of that brief period when Thompson was a town between 1966 and 1970 when it was elevated to city status.

The Inco presence was still very much felt, however, with men like Don Munn, general manager of Inco's Manitoba Operations in Thompson, and Local Government District (LGD) of Mystery Lake resident administrator Carl Nesbitt on the five-man inaugural board of directors for Thompson General Hospital.

Thompson seemed to grow exponentially throughout the 1960s and early 1970s, resulting in expansion projects for the Thompson General Hospital being undertaken in 1962, 1968 and 1975. The 1975 expansion cost more than $2 million with a community fundraising campaign bring in $595,000 for the local contribution.

At its peak in the mid-1970s, Thompson General Hospital had 125 beds - 40 per cent more than the 74 beds it has today - although there have been expansions in other areas and mean of delivering healthcare over those last 35 years, such as the dialysis unit, which can treat 40 patients and opened in 2008, as did the Acquired Brain Injury Residence; Northern Spirit Manor, which opened in 2007; and the Burntwood Community Health Resource Centre in Thompson Plaza, which opened in 2000.

© Copyright Thompson Citizen

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