Candace O’Connor, author of Climbing the Ladder, Chasing the Dream: The History of Homer G. Phillips Hospital, is a freelance journalist and the author of 14 books, including histories of Barnes-Jewish Hospital and the Central West End. She lives in St. Louis with her husband.
Through many years of writing about St. Louis history, I had often heard of Homer G. Phillips Hospital (1937-1979) and its deep importance to the Black community. People spoke of it in reverential terms. They told stories about its hectic Emergency Department—the best in the city for gunshot or stab wounds; they praised the Surgery staff that had trained leading Black surgeons in the area, even the nation. A screaming ambulance might drop off a desperately injured patient, trailing blood from the stretcher. But days later, these adults and children walked out of the hospital, whole and healthy. No one was ever turned away.
So, when the Homer G. Phillips Nurses Alumni Assn. contacted me several years ago and asked whether I would undertake a book-length history of the hospital, I never hesitated. Then and there, I said yes, looking forward to stories of hope and healing, heroism and happy endings. It would be a strong and exciting story to tell.
But as I began interviewing these nurses and physicians, I realized that the story was even richer and more complex than I had imagined. Of course, I heard many moving patient stories—especially from the nurses, who cared for their charges, shift after weary shift. They packed the burns of suffering children with silver nitrate dressings, hovered over the tiniest babies, and washed the dirty feet of shivering homeless men and women, who needed a warm haven on icy winter days.
They also had their first encounters with death. One nursing student was taking care of a shooting victim in his 20s when he died unexpectedly, leaving her bereft. How could this happen to someone so young? She ran sobbing to her dorm room and began packing to go home. Just then, the nursing director stopped in to console her, advising her wisely that “you do not give life nor take life, you can only preserve it.” Suddenly, the young nurse understood, and she returned to her patients.
How did these nurses and trainees find Homer G. in the first place? When I asked, they began to reveal their personal stories—often of childhoods in the rural South, where family members had little education and spent their lives on hardscrabble farms. Miraculously, they heard of a majestic hospital far away—not shabby, not second rate—and they decided to carve out different lives for themselves. Scraping together the tuition, they boarded buses or trains for the long ride north to St. Louis. “Failure is not an option,” they told themselves — and three years later, after a rigorous training program, they were nurses. But they were more than that: They were also solid members of the middle class, instantly employable in hospitals across the country. Today, their own children are lawyers and physicians. So, this marvelous hospital was not just a place where patients got well; it was also a powerful engine for social change. The critical importance of this role came as a surprise to me, and I made it another focus of the narrative, as well as part of the book’s title. As nurse Georgia Anderson told me, “You can’t climb up if there’s not a ladder or some way to move yourself up. In the areas where we came from, there were no opportunities. So, Homer G. Phillips was the ladder for me—and I am not sorry that I started climbing.”
The History of Homer G. Phillips Hospital
$40.00 l hardcover l 330 pp. l 82 photos
If you'd like to read more about Homer G. Phillips Hospital, check back next week to read an excerpt from the book on our blog...