Merrill’s history tinged with humor

Published 12:00 am Saturday, April 16, 2016

Scotty Merrill’s written words quickly drew me in.

“… She was puritanically clean in appearance and was severe almost to the extreme in her every action. … in an emergency, she could sprint down a hospital corridor like a track star, and she terrorized everyone who crossed her path as she went about her rounds. She usually intimidated patients and small children, especially if she was wielding a huge syringe with a gleaming hypodermic needle.”

In the written history of health care in rural Alabama and specifically Covington County to which he refers as a three-part essay, he was, of course, describing a typical nurse.

Much of the history is from Scotty’s research, but it was the footnotes of his personal recollections that had me laughing aloud and reading excerpts to anyone I could coerce to listen. To wit:

“When I was six years old, I was impolitely escorted out of Covington Memorial Hospital by a mean nurse with muscles like Popeye. My crime was simply sitting on the edge of my mother’s bed to get a better look at my newborn brother. The nurse treated me as though I was the carrier of every plague germ known to man and that I existed solely for the purpose of spreading these germs. ”

When I read that to my father, he insisted he had the same nurse when his tonsils were removed there.

I read Scotty’s patiently-researched essay as an entry point of my own research on health care history, and particularly the history of Andalusia Regional Hospital, which today celebrates its 50th anniversary. Scotty’s documentation sent me deep into the bound volumes of newspapers from the 1960s, and the phenomenal story of how a community raised the money for a new hospital.

The group of men who led the effort – well documented in Scotty’s history and in the magazine insert in today’s edition – worked on their idea for five years before a community-wide fundraising campaign began. Organizers planned to speak with every employee of every business and industry, and much pride was taken in being a “100 percent” business.

Collectively, local residents across the economic spectrum pledged over a three-year period a sum of $490,000 for the effort, the equivalent of $3.8 million in today’s dollars.

Later, the funds were supplemented with federal Hill-Burton funds. But the vision, even then, was that Andalusia’s hospital would be a regional facility that would attract specialist and serve a larger geographical area. The first construction was designed with an additional already in mind. Today, we still reap the benefits of their foresight.

In the late 1970s, those visionary people began to see a need to sell the hospital. When that happened in 1980, the proceeds of the sale – the profits resulting from the investment of three-years of payroll deductions by ordinary citizens – was approximately $2 million. That money was invested, and the proceeds continue to improve local health care today by funding scholarships for those students who would pursue medical careers and work in Covington County.

In his footnotes to history, Scotty shared stories about being taught as a child to look out for the vehicle of a certain doctor who was known to drive recklessly when making house calls; a heartbreaking memory of the difficulty some in our community had in accessing health care; and colorful anecdotes about a doctor who made his own special remedy – prescribed as cough syrup for men and nerve tonic for women.

Health care has come a long way. We are fortunate to be served by a facility that continues to look toward the future with an eye on good health for all.

Michele Gerlach is publisher of The Star-News.