Pittsburgh, PA
May 30, 2023
    News           Sports           Lifestyle           Classifieds           About Us
The Dining Guide
Travel Getaways
Headlines by E-mail
Home >  Lifestyle  Printer-friendly versionE-mail this story
Saying goodbye to St. Francis Medical Center

Empty rooms filled with memories of medical and spiritual healing

Sunday, October 20, 2002

By Christopher Snowbeck, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

As Sister Florence Brandt begins her farewell tour, it's clear that Liberace has left the lobby.

For years, the Liberace Lobby served as both the entry to St. Francis Medical Center and as a kind of memorial to one of the hospital's most celebrated patients, complete with a framed photo sporting the pianist's looping signature.

Now, it's hosting a garage sale.

Sister Florence Brandt, former CEO of St. Francis Health System, takes a moment to reflect while Darlene Durand, an admissions counselor to the center's school of nursing, dusts an antique wheelchair. Durand, who has worked at St. Francis since graduating from nursing school in 1968, said, "I was 17 when I came here. I grew up here." (Steve Mellon, Post-Gazette)

Related article:

Legacy eases trauma of leaving

Stray furniture and plants from throughout the hospital have been collected for sale and a silent auction. Folding tables are covered with discarded books and binders, free for the taking.

It's a scene quite unlike the 1986 dedication ceremony, when Liberace made his entrance while a protege played "When the Saints Come Marching In."

Liberace's link to the hospital dates back to 1963, when he was rushed to St. Francis from a performance in Monroeville. The gilded pianist had inhaled fumes while cleaning one of his trademark costumes and suffered kidney failure.

The story goes that a nun came to Liberace's hospital room and suggested he pray to St. Anthony for a miracle. Dependent on a dialysis machine and facing only a 20 percent chance of survival, Liberace took the advice and prayed in earnest.

His recovery was dramatic.

Grateful for the medical and spiritual care, Liberace made several visits to the hospital in subsequent years. He supported fund-raisers and always made sure the sisters had tickets to his shows. In 1986, when St. Francis opened the $1.8 million lobby, the sisters dedicated it to Liberace.

But now, the Liberace Lobby's fate is similar to that of all the rooms and hallways at St. Francis, which is scheduled to be sealed off Oct. 31 with the hospital's final transfer to the UPMC Health System. Functioning medical equipment from St. Francis will be farmed out to various UPMC hospitals. The remaining campus is expected to look dramatically different when it reopens in 2007 as Children's Hospital.

Yet for one morning this month, Sister Florence can still look at the physical remains and recall the hospital's mission of healing body, mind and spirit.

There's no wait in the waiting room of the hospital's Welcome Center, just downstairs from the lobby. The registration bays are silent. Artwork is off the walls, locked away in a storage room.

It's an improbable scene, considering that this was the flagship hospital for what was once the 13th largest health system in the country.

When Sister Florence was 25 and first reported to work in 1958, this wing was under construction and embodied the growing spirit of the place. Just down the hall, the Emsworth native did computer and administrative work for 20 years.

Sister Florence left home as a junior in high school to join the Sisters of St. Francis of Millvale and taught school before moving to the hospital. She left to live in the mother house in 1985 but returned to become a chief executive of St. Francis Medical Center and, ultimately, the last of the sisters to run the entire St. Francis Health System, which includes hospitals in Cranberry and New Castle.

St. Francis Medical Center grew from humble beginnings to become a commanding presence in Lawrenceville.(Steve Mellon, Post-Gazette)

Standing a little more than 5 feet tall, wearing sensible beige shoes and a long maroon skirt and jacket, Sister Florence doesn't look the CEO type as she walks the halls. She speaks with careful authority and intelligence about the hospital's history, but there are also hints of weariness over what has happened to St. Francis.

On a nearby emergency room entrance, Sister Florence points out the code "20-C+M+B-02" written in chalk above the doorway. It was left there by the pastoral care staff on Jan. 6 to commemorate the Feast of the Epiphany. The numbers represent the year while the letters stand for Caspar, Melchior and Balthazar. Blessings such as this one can be found on doorways throughout the hospital.

In the radiology department, the hallway is filled not with people but with X-ray equipment awaiting shipment elsewhere. Sister Florence was a hospital administrator in 1975 when a room off this same hallway became home to the city's first CT scanner. She can remember going to a regional planning meeting to get approval to buy the machine.

"I remember one of our doctors saying, 'In a very short period of time, every hospital is going to have these machines. They will be as basic as an EKG machine,' " she says. The doctor was right.

Humble beginnings

As it happens, the EKG (electrocardiograph) machine was another St. Francis first.

In 1914, Dr. Andrew P. D'Zmura assembled the revolutionary device, which graphically recorded the heart's electrical impulses so doctors could assess whether a patient's heart rate and rhythm were normal. The machine went on to become a staple of cardiac care in all hospitals. At the time, though, it was one of only six in the nation.

This high-tech tradition came from humble roots.

The Sisters of St. Francis of Millvale started caring for sick and poor German Catholics in 1865. They based their health-care mission in a frame house that fronted an alley between 36th and 39th streets in Lawrenceville.

There were other hospitals at the time. Mercy Hospital treated Catholics, Passavant Hospital, which was then located on the North Side, treated German Protestants, and West Penn Hospital in Bloomfield was a private general hospital, according to Carolyn Leonard Carson's 1995 history of St. Francis.

But immigrants of the Roman Catholic faith strove to maintain their own separate cultural identities, Carson wrote, and there was a feeling that German Catholics were ignored by the Irish bishop, who favored Mercy Hospital.

St. Francis grew quickly.

In 1871, the alley house became the infectious disease department and the main hospital moved to a three-story brick building on the hilltop where the medical center stands today. By 1883, St. Francis Hospital had more beds than either Mercy or West Penn.

Blessings were written in chalk on doorways every January by the hospital's pastoral care department and remained for much of the year. The numbers represent the year while the letters stand for Caspar, Melchior and Balthazar, the three kings who visited the baby Jesus. (Steve Mellon, Post-Gazette)

A wing built in 1910 further expanded the hospital's capacity to 600 beds and placed the hospital's new front door on 45th Street. An old photo shows both the ornate entrance and, in the foreground, a St. Francis Hospital ambulance -- ambulances both carried patients and served as taxis for the sisters in the early years.

True to the city's heritage, the hospital specialized in industrial medicine. Carnegie Steel, for example, had a 15- to 20-bed ward at the hospital where injured workers were treated. That tradition served as the background for the hospital's rehabilitation department, which was created about the time Sister Florence arrived. Hospital officials boasted it was the only such department between New York and Chicago.

But St. Francis also was known for psychiatric care, a tradition that dated back to the 19th century, when Sister Mary Magdalen Hess, the superior at the hospital, suffered a nervous breakdown. She became the hospital's first psychiatric patient, and in the year of her death, 1884, the hospital applied for a license to care for insane women.

In the early 20th century, the hospital developed a related specialty caring for substance abusers.

"These were needy people," Sister Florence says. "They landed in the emergency room and someone needed to care for them."

By the time Sister Florence arrived, the hospital's German heritage was largely hidden, a consequence of the first and second world wars, she says. The changing demographics of Lawrenceville also were a factor, she says, recalling that some of the custodial staff at the time spoke only Polish.

Facing the end

In the basement of the radiology department, John Presco leads Sister Florence on a tour of the millions -- not just thousands -- of X-rays and mammograms that he and other workers are boxing up for storage. Presco has worked at St. Francis for 28 years and says being at the hospital in recent weeks has been like watching someone die.

"There were a lot of wet eyes," he says. "Sometimes, people couldn't even look at one another."

When Sister Florence asks another radiology worker what she will do when the hospital finally closes, the woman tears up and says she can't talk about it.

There are also tears in the eyes of Sam Fish, a computer specialist at the hospital for 22 years, when he stops Sister Florence in a hallway near the administrative offices. Fish recalls how during his wife's hospitalization, Sister Florence's compassion was such a comfort to them. It meant a lot to him that she always inquired about his wife in subsequent years, Fish says.

Where pay phones have been ripped out near the old hospital entrance on 45th Street, Sister Florence greets Angel Lardo, a radiation oncology nurse who has been laid off just this morning. Lardo started working at St. Francis in 1972 but left in the early 1990s to work in another city hospital. She lasted only six months -- she missed the St. Francis spirit. Now she has no choice but to leave.

Empty treatment areas on the fifth floor of the old hospital are a stark reminder of what was once a bustling area. It's unclear how renovations for a new Children's Hospital will use existing spaces. (Steve Mellon, Post-Gazette)

On the fifth floor of the old hospital, Sister Florence walks through what had been St. Francis' first intensive care unit -- the one where Liberace recovered. Marble-walled operating rooms originally filled the space, she says, but she can't find any of the old fixtures.

At the end of a long hallway that slopes off the back of the hospital, Sister Florence stands in a chapel that is one of the oldest and most grand structures at St. Francis. Roughly two dozen pews are still bunched up in the middle of the elegant room, allowing workers to remove the 15-foot-tall stained-glass windows that colored the space.

In the old days, the nuns gathered in the chapel several times a day for prayers and always sat in the front pews, Sister Florence says. The old convent had a room with sightlines into the chapel, so that a sister who was ill could still take part in the worship.

The chapel was also a place for patients' families to gather, sometimes accompanied by hospital nurses who wanted to pray with them. On Sundays, psychiatric patients would be among those who attended Mass. A security guard in nearby Mary Immaculate Hall describes how in the years after his wife's death, he stopped to pray in the chapel every night during his rounds.

The hall, located across 45th Street from the hospital, is one of the buildings Sister Florence worries about with the change to Children's Hospital. Built in 1930 as the hospital's school of nursing, the 12-story art deco structure features a swimming pool, a gymnasium/auditorium and perhaps the most impressive of St. Francis' many front doors. When closed, the doors are a towering black slab of metal decorated with cutouts of crosses and microscopes.

Across a courtyard from the old nursing school stands the hospital's psychiatry pavilion, an inpatient facility opened in 1987. There was great care to tailor the building for psychiatric patients, Sister Florence says, recalling how blinds were placed in between window panes so patients couldn't use them to harm themselves.

DeAnn Marshall, spokeswoman for Children's Hospital, says the psychiatric pavilion will be saved, but it's unclear what will happen to the Mary Immaculate Hall, the chapel and many of the sites Sister Florence speaks of with loving memories.

The Liberace Lobby will be renovated, Marshall says, although the name will be dropped. That might be just as well. Liberace never came through with promised donations to the hospital.

The spaces in St. Francis Medical Center help to tell the hospital's story.

But what made the hospital different, Sister Florence says, were the people.

"I think the strong point of St. Francis was its commitment to people, and that was true not only to the patients but also to our personnel. There was always a spirit here that I think we just took for granted. ... People would openly say that they believed in healing body, mind and spirit and that they tried to practice that.

"It wasn't just the sisters' mission. It was everyone's."

Christopher Snowbeck can be reached at csnowbeck@post-gazette.com or 412-263-2625.

Back to top Back to top E-mail this story E-mail this story
Search | Contact Us |  Site Map | Terms of Use |  Privacy Policy |  Advertise | Help |  Corrections