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Aspen Valley Hospital
0401 Castle Creek Road
Aspen, CO 81611
Aspen Valley Hospital has a rich and colorful history that started during the silver mining days. The first miners reached what is present-day Aspen in the summer of 1879. Word spread quickly there was mineral wealth in these mountains, and by the early 1880s, Aspen had most amenities: churches, schools, homes, saloons, hotels and restaurants. By the mid-1880s, there were 13 doctors, but no hospital.
In 1889 there was a county-wide population of 14,000. Married men were usually cared for at home by their wives, but single working men—many of them employed in dangerous occupations—made up more than half of Aspen's population. The need for a hospital was clear by the numerous accidents reported in The Aspen Times. Men who cut timber for the mines sliced off parts of their limbs; spooked horses injured their riders; customers at saloons were shot; railroaders were burned by their fiery engines; men were injured by explosions in the mines; and those working in ore-processing plants got caught in machinery. Languishing in their boarding houses, the sick or injured died of neglect as much as illness.
What Aspen needed was a fully-supported community hospital. In March 1889, a committee began meeting to discuss the general concept for a hospital, and an anonymous donor gave $300 toward the cause. By fall, the committee formalized, calling themselves the “Citizens’ Hospital Committee of Pitkin County.” F.A. Hunt was elected chairman, and finance, fundraising and building committees were appointed. A site on the first rise between Pratt (Red) and Smuggler mountains was selected. It was decided the structure should have 20 nice, clean, well-lighted rooms for patients along with rooms for the doctors and nurses. Committee members agreed to ". . . get out among the people and raise funds."
The hospital was to be executed in Queen Anne style and was budgeted at $16,000. A Denver firm was paid $60 to design the structure. It was to be built in three sections — a ward for the miners who subscribed to the hospital, a ward for indigents, and a section of private rooms for the wealthier citizens who could pay for their care. Fundraising efforts were immediately successful. The Rio Grande and Midland Railroads each gave a donation of $3,000, an anonymous donor gave $1,000, and $2,000 was given by both the county commissioners and City of Aspen. By the summer of 1890, construction was well underway.
However, the fundraising committee was still $7,000 short of their goal. They began an intensive campaign, saying, "No man who has employment should fail to give a day's wages. . ." or $3.50. On July 18, 1890, an editorial in The Aspen Times read, "If the men in Aspen who smoke ten cigars a day will curtail their smoke to five for a week, each can give the hospital fund $3.50 and be better off physically and better off financially. The sum total of the fund would be increased by about $175. No one would be the loser but the cigar merchant and the government on internal revenue."
By fall of 1891, the Citizens' Hospital Committee had accomplished its task, and Aspen's first hospital, "the finest on the Western Slope,” was finished. Located between Red and Smuggler Mountains, it was the pride of the town and would serve the community for the next 70 years. A Charity Ball provided the setting for the hospital’s opening in September 1891. It was billed as the “event of the season,” and all of the celebrants enjoyed tours and a gala supper at the hospital.
There was one ward for "subscription" patients and one for indigent patients, a total of 11 to 12 beds. On the third floor of the hospital there were living quarters for members of the staff. Dr. L.H. Kemble, who was in charge of the hospital, was paid $150 per month. Operating costs were covered primarily by the mining companies through monthly deductions of $1 from their subscribing employees. Complaints that led to hospitalization included consumption, rheumatism, lead poisoning, injuries, grippe, pleurisy, gonorrhea and frozen limbs. Whisky was used for pain and as anesthesia, mustard plasters for consumption, and flax seed and charcoal poultices to treat wounds.
“There has been a total number of 81 patients admitted to the hospital since it was opened about the middle of last September, and only nine deaths have occurred. In nearly all of these latter cases the patient did not live but about 36 hours. They were almost ready for the undertaker when they were taken to the hospital.”
The careful planning and thrifty management of the Citizens' Hospital could not prevent the nearly crippling blow that fell only two years after it opened its doors: the repeal of the Sherman Act and the demonetization of silver on November 4, 1893. By the end of that year, 80 percent of Aspen's enterprises were bankrupt, and thousands of suddenly destitute Aspenites moved on, taking with them the hospital's most substantial source of income, monthly subscription payments. The hospital struggled to remain open. The community had banded together to build the Citizens’ Hospital. With the economy working against them, how would the remaining residents of Aspen be able to keep their hospital open?
The remaining population fought to keep their beautiful town alive by producing a brochure promoting its many attributes, including the Citizens’ Hospital. But by 1915, Dr. Warren Twining (who had arrived in Aspen in 1902) was the only doctor in town, serving a county-wide population of 1,500. Money was a problem for citizens and organizations alike. Members of the Old Maids Club wrote and acted in a play that added $77.05 to the hospital treasury in 1912, but by 1921, monthly expenses of $650 exceeded the income of $500. The Aspen Democrat reported the hospital was “down to its last dollar” and suggested that $500 left in the war chest after World War I be given to the hospital. A performance at the Isis Theater in 1923 raised $102.80 for coal.
During these years when the hospital struggled to remain open, Dr. Twining and his lovely wife Maude, nurse Elizabeth Callahan, and John Crosby were the hospital’s most valuable assets. John administered anesthesia, served as an X-ray technician, custodian, gardener, and primary food supplier. It is claimed that on one occasion, when John was a patient in the hospital, they moved his bed into the operating room so he could administer drop ether. Elizabeth did everything from assisting in surgery to canning vegetables from the hospital’s garden. She accompanied patients who had to be transported to Denver on the train or in the Mesa Store delivery truck. The truck was the only vehicle large enough to hold a stretcher.
In 1933, the Twinings took over the hospital and ran it almost single-handedly, leasing it from the Citizens’ Hospital Association and agreeing to pay 5 percent of the net revenue over $3,000. The arrangement lasted until 1946, when Doc Twining died suddenly at age 71, ending a unique era in Aspen’s history.
A find of great significance in the 1930s would eventually change the town forever. William Fiske III, U.S. bobsled champion in the 1936 Olympics, was looking for a place to develop a first-class ski resort. Recognizing terrain on Aspen Mountain that would suit the purpose, he brought together the people and resources needed for such a resort. Then, in 1945, Walter Paepcke visited Aspen and unveiled plans to create a setting for an intellectually and culturally enriching life. The fulfillment of both men’s dreams would justify the hard work and determination of the hospital staff that had continued to provide medical care in spite of adversity. Both dreams meant more people would come to Aspen, and more people meant more patients for the hospital. The town and its hospital were on the road to success.
Shortly after Doc Twining’s death, the Citizens’ Hospital Association transferred authority for the facility to the county, and it was renamed Pitkin County Hospital. But this did not relieve the citizens of responsibility for the hospital. In the late 1940s they held a benefit dinner for the hospital, featuring a menu of wild game donated by Aspen residents. The event continued as an annual tradition into the 1970s. In 1946, a Building and Grounds Committee was established to raise funds to remodel and refurbish the deteriorating 55-year-old structure. In 1951, a nursing shortage caused a temporary closure of the facility.
Eventually, new nurses came to town, along with new doctors. Still, the shortage of skilled staff came to Dr. J. Sterling Baxter’s attention on his first visit to the Hotel Jerome. Just passing through, he was getting a rundown on the town from the bartender, and Dr. Robert “Bugsy” Barnard came in looking for any one of Aspen’s few doctors. After introductions were made, Dr. Barnard asked Dr. Baxter if he could administer open drop ether anesthesia, as he had a patient with an appendix that needed to come out. “I’m just out of the army, I can do anything,” Dr. Baxter replied, and he was promptly escorted to the hospital to help with the surgery.
By 1957, in spite of a rising census and revitalized staff, it became clear that the 65-year old hospital was woefully inadequate. Yet another fundraising campaign was embarked upon, and Aspen's second hospital was begun in stages, utilizing the old building, along with new wings, until completion. In the fall of 1959, the first new wing opened—built behind the hospital and attached by a ramp.
Also in 1957, the first board-certified orthopedist, Dr. Bob Oden, arrived, and Dr. Baxter was asked to speak at an orthopedic meeting of the American Medical Association. Conditions in the hospital, though, did not match the work that was done there. Equipment was antiquated or nonexistent, and patients were confined in beds that would not fit through the doors to their rooms. The board said there was no money to make improvements and, fearing lawsuits, resigned en mass, pointing to Rose Stanton as the person to make things right. Rose became instrumental in building what later became known as the “Middle Hospital.” Like others before her, Rose overlooked the odds and did whatever was necessary to build a new hospital.
In 1960, the county commissioners entered into an agreement with the Mennonite Church – who also managed the hospital in Glenwood Springs – which lasted until 1970. Samuel Janzen, administrator there, simply added Pitkin County Hospital to his duty roster. While the final phase of construction of the middle hospital was completed in 1962 under Janzen’s supervision, he is more frequently remembered as the person who held a community contest to find a new name for the hospital. Longtime Aspenite Eloise Ilgen picked the winning name: Aspen Valley Hospital (AVH). She won a pass to the Aspen Music Festival for her efforts.
Once enough money was raised through taxes, private donations, county funds, and federal funds from the Hill-Burton Act, construction on the new hospital began. It was constructed in the same location as the Citizen’s Hospital. The last phase of the "Middle Hospital" came in early 1962 when the main portion of the old Citizens' Hospital was torn down and replaced with a final wing that joined the two earlier phases. The entire town turned out with trucks and shovels to help haul away the rubble. But many old-timers mourned its passing. With it went the end of a gentler era in which horses and buggies parked out back, the sheets blew dry on the lines, homemade gooseberry jam was served for breakfast, and fresh fish from the Roaring Fork was served for dinner.
The “Middle Hospital” was a 25-bed facility. However, the ski industry brought more and more visitors, and there was soon the need for an even larger hospital. No one had anticipated the incredible population surge that hit Aspen. By the late 1960s, there was a permanent population of 5,000 people and an annual visitor total of 250,000 people. In the winter, many of them ended up in the corridors of the hospital waiting for treatment. Jan Ortega, Director of Physical Therapy at AVH, remembers the Middle Hospital was hopelessly overcrowded by the early 1970s. "PT had a little corner in the ER, and that was it. Really, we had no space at all; treatments were done in the halls," she said. The maternity ward was so substandard due to overcrowding that authorities threatened to close it. With a new hospital, doctors continued to arrive, including Dr. Harold “Whit” Whitcomb. And more ski opportunities were realized to satisfy the growing number of enthusiasts.
As in the past, the people of the community continued to make the difference for Aspen and its hospital. There was never enough money, but women in the community came to the rescue, volunteering to do smaller tasks in the hospital to free the nurses for the jobs they were trained to do. Their formal organization, founded in 1960, became known as the “Blue Ladies” for the uniforms they wore. Wheelchair or crutch races in the solarium were popular among the more ambulatory patients; a Blue Lady was usually the timer.
As the 1960s drew to a close, it was obvious to most people involved with the Middle Hospital that Aspen’s growth and changes in medicine would soon render it useless. As the new decade began, Pitkin County resumed operation of the hospital, and a new administrator was named.
Jim Bulkley was a lawyer who was recruited to the county hospital board. Before long, he had an assignment: build a new hospital. He quickly learned that a hospital couldn’t be built within the existing county budget; a hospital district needed to be formed. In July of 1973, after two years of study, the hospital board recommended that a new site for the hospital be selected. They cited the high cost and unpredictability of remodeling, future hospital needs that would exceed the seven acres at the present site, and the fact that, in all probability for only $500,000 more than a remodel, an entirely new facility could be built.
The demand that a new hospital be built was not the idea of a single person, nor was it an idea that had been arrived at hastily and without thought. Statistics from 1967-1971 showed that adult admissions had increased 91 percent, and newborn admissions were up 85 percent. At times, the hospital was forced to turn away all but the most acute emergencies; at times there were as many as 47 patients in the 29-bed facility, some on stretchers in the halls. In 1973, the State of Colorado threatened to close the hospital. The possibility of adding on to the existing hospital was strongly debated, but eventually, the board agreed that a new site should be found. To get the job done, however, required two new entities—a hospital district empowered to issue bonds to pay for most of the cost, and a nonprofit organization to raise private money for the balance. Dr. Bob Oden, along with Dr. Robert Morgen and Dr. Russell Scott, founded the Aspen Valley Medical Foundation for the purpose of raising money for a new hospital, but also for medical equipment and other purposes. Meanwhile, Jim Bulkley took steps toward creating a hospital district.
General Obligation (G.O.) bonds were sold in $5,000 increments and covered the cost of the construction. The Aspen Valley Medical Foundation, under the leadership of President Edgar Stern and Fundraising Chairman Wilton Jaffe, Sr., and Executive Director Eve Homeyer (pictured above), raised the rest of the money. Major pledges came from the Ski Corporation and local physicians, but everyone pitched in, including donor, singer and Aspenite John Denver. The Foundation's theme was "Join the '91ers," echoing the request that the businessmen of 1891 contribute a day's pay to Aspen's first hospital.
By early 1976, two-thirds of the needed $1,500,000 in private money was raised. For everyone in the community, a new hospital couldn’t be built fast enough. A 10-acre site on Castle Creek Road, with plenty of room for expansion, was selected. It took more than a year to build the new hospital, and the $4 million project came in close to budget. On October 25, 1977, the new 49-bed hospital was officially dedicated at its new home on Castle Creek Road. At the time of the opening, the Board was comprised of James Bulkley, Rose Stanton, Wilton Jaffee, Sr., Russell Pielstick and Dr. Robert Oden.
Aspen had its new hospital, and it was modern in every way. Rose Stanton had served on the hospital Board for 22 years, from the time of the original hospital and continuing through to the new hospital. The new building was 65,000 square feet. In March 1979, the Aspen Valley Medical Foundation announced plans to raise money for the purchase of nine acres adjacent to the hospital that would be saved for future expansion. Needed was almost $130,000 to purchase the land from Pitkin County. Like community involvement, quality care had become one of the strongest threads connecting the new modern facility with the original hospital that had opened in 1891. In 1979, the hospital reached an important milestone: accreditation by the Joint Commission on Accreditation of Healthcare Organizations. It would take more than that, however, for the hospital to cope with national trends in the healthcare delivery system. The annual report in 1985 showed an operating loss of $400,000. Of the more than 6,000 patients treated at Aspen Valley Hospital during 1985, those who were admitted stayed for shorter periods. Concurrently, one of the hospital’s largest bills, malpractice insurance, doubled.
In addition, property values climbed, and employees of the hospital were priced out of the market. Members of the hospital Board faced the problem in typical Aspen fashion, building 21 employee housing units on the hospital campus. Called Mountain Oaks, the housing complex opened in 1989. Not far away, under the leadership of Dr. Whitcomb, another special population was provided for in 1990 at Castle Creek Terrace (now called Whitcomb Terrace), an assisted living facility with private apartments. In all likelihood, the 49-bed hospital planned and built in the 1970s would have had a different footprint had it been planned and built in the 1980s. New techniques and equipment combined with rising costs ushered in a new era for hospitals and patients. The shift from inpatient care to outpatient care was well on its way. Arthroscopic knee surgery once required a one-week hospitalization, but it became a same-day experience. Hospital utilization was on the decline, and changes were necessary.
By 1991, Aspen Valley Hospital was considered one of the most sophisticated rural hospitals in the country. It had adapted to the national trend toward shorter stays and increased its outpatient care and use of the emergency room. It had obtained Level III trauma status, expanded the radiology department with state-of-the-art imaging technology, and had grown its medical staff and services. Both the community and the hospital had reason to celebrate. The hospital had served, and the community had supported medical care in an isolated location for 100 years – an achievement that would be difficult to duplicate in any other place or time. The hospital’s centennial year was celebrated by hundreds of citizens with a picnic on the hospital lawn in 1991.
As the town grew, the hospital strove to keep up with the demands placed on it by residents and visitors. In 1998, the Midvalley Medical Center opened in Basalt. The facility included an ambulatory surgery center, doctors’ offices, and a variety of support services. A cardiologist joined the staff as the population aged and heart problems became more prevalent. Nuclear medicine services and cardiac rehabilitation followed. A diabetes education program was introduced, and an infusion center was created for a growing number of cancer patients. The volunteer corps added a Pet Enrichment Therapy program. By 2000, more than 60 percent of revenues came from outpatient care.
Public support for the hospital has existed for almost its entire history. The G.O. bonds of the mid-1970s were retired in 1991, and in 1992 the Board approved a 38,000-square-foot expansion to meet future and existing needs, with a price tag of $11.3 million. Voters were asked to approve new G.O. bonds (for $8 million) to help with the construction. Many considered the project too large, and the bond issue was soundly defeated in 1993. Revenue bonds, however (which didn’t require voter approval) were issued for some internal renovations and an expansion of the Aspen Birth Center which opened in the fall of 2008. It would be almost 20 years, though, before the hospital was able to get approvals and funding for a comprehensive Master Facilities Plan.
In 1995 an operational mill levy was passed. It goes before voters for renewal every 10 years (it was originally every five years, but voters extended it to 10 years in 2019). And, in 2012, with Aspen Valley Hospital under the jurisdiction of the City of Aspen, $50 million in G.O. bonds were issued for the hospital’s expansion and renovation.
By fall of 2012, a large portion of the expansion had been completed, including the Evelyn H. Lauder Patient Care Pavilion, rehabilitation facilities, and a new cafeteria, the Castle Creek Cafe. Medical office space was later added, along with internal renovations of various outpatient departments. In 2016, final phases of construction were completed including the emergency department, surgical services, diagnostic imaging, the laboratory, outpatient clinics, and a new entry.
The entire project was estimated to cost $120 million . . . and that was the impetus behind the hospital forming its own foundation – Aspen Valley Hospital Foundation – in 2012. With its own Board of Directors, and a clear mission to support the hospital’s capital improvement and other needs, it set about raising $60 million in support of the capital campaign.
In Outside Magazine in 1998, glowing phrases such as “unfailing hospitality,” “world-class bedside manner,” and “sophisticated high-tech care you might expect at a much larger hospital,” were punctuated by “the difference becomes clear behind the closed doors, where you find the multimillion-dollar CT and MRI scanners, the tele-networked computers and numerous monitors.”
Patient surveys consistently show high approval ratings for the care provided at Aspen Valley Hospital, often exceeding national averages. Comments like the following are typical: “Everyone exhibited the highest degree of expert professionalism, cloaked without exception in warmth, friendliness and true caring . . . I shall long remember Jean’s reassuring and confidence-building demeanor, Ellen’s spirit of goodwill, and Mary’s heartwarming sweetness toward me when I felt the lowest . . . I hope that each of you Aspenites fully appreciate what a priceless asset you have in your Aspen Valley Hospital.” In recent years, Aspen Valley Hospital has achieved plentiful awards for patient outcomes, clinical quality and financial strength.
Throughout the years that Aspen Valley Hospital has provided care for patients in the Roaring Fork Valley, there have been major ups and downs due to seasonal fluctuations of the population, economic downturns, snow conditions and varying leadership styles. But year after year, the hospital staff, physicians, volunteers and the community come together to ensure the hospital provides the highest quality of care and service.
The hospital continues to develop diverse medical services, recruit needed physician specialists, upgrade its facility to reflect constantly changing patient needs, promote employee engagement and utilize state-of-the-art technology for diagnosis, treatment and communication. The COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 accelerated the hospital's launch of telemedicine, or virtual visits, to provide patients more options for receiving care during an uncertain time. The hospital's vision is to foster our community as the healthiest in the nation, by constantly improving access to care and being a part of the solution to lower healthcare costs.
Community pride in Aspen Valley Hospital today is as evident as it was in the 1890s. An unnamed reporter for the Rocky Mountain Sun said it best in September 1891: “The average citizen acquiesces in the general belief that such an institution, built as it was by private subscription and standing with its doors open for afflicted humanity, is an honor to the city and a most welcome abode for those in misfortune who enjoy its rare benefits."