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El Camino Hospital Turns 50

In its anniversary year, El Camino Hospital received awards and honors for its advance technology and top-rated patient care.

Back in the 1950s, the area now known as Silicon Valley had just started to bloom.

Orchards gave way to office buildings. Workers and entrepreneurs came from far and wide to settle in the burgeoning valley and nab a well-paying job and a plot of land to build the home of their dreams.

As the valley continued to thrive, one thing became increasingly apparent. The hospitals and doctors could not meet the needs and provide the quality of care to such a rapidly growing population.

“Local hospitals were at capacity,” said Judy Twitchell, a spokeswoman at .

So begins the story of how El Camino Hospital got started and how decisions throughout the years have made the hospital renowned for its innovative and technologically advanced medical treatment.

Flashback to 1955

According to Twitchell, a group of Los Altos physicians met and hatched the idea of building a new hospital "in an area that would be more convenient to residents of northern Santa Clara County."

A measure to form a hospital district was put on the ballot in 1956, and it received overwhelming support. Residents of Los Altos, Los Altos Hills, Mountain View and Sunnyvale voted in favor of the new hospital district and approved a $7.3 million bond to cover construction costs.

The Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors then appointed a board of five members to find a perfect location for the new hospital. That ended up being a 20-acre orchard on Grant Road in Mountain View.

Board Chairman Billy Russell of Los Altos first suggested the name “El Camino Hospital.”

A special groundbreaking ceremony took place in the Grant Road orchard, and construction officially began in 1958.

Three years later, a 300-bed, four-story hospital stood in the former orchard. At the stroke of midnight on Sept. 1, 1961, El Camino Hospital opened its doors for the first time.

Longtime hospital employee and volunteer Judy Van Dyck recalls, “A private room was just $30 a day when the hospital opened. A semi-private room was $26, and the nursery was $10 a day.”

The demand proved to be so great that by the end of the first week, the hospital was full, and admissions were temporarily halted.

Fast Forward to 2011

“A lot of what makes El Camino the unique place it is, is that people started out in a really positive, confident way, in why it was so needed and what should be done, and the thinking was really unlimited,” said Twitchell.

With this type of thinking, and as time went on, El Camino Hospital (ECH) began to demonstrate that it was at the forefront of advances in medicine and patient care.

“One of the things about El Camino is that it’s always been independent, so it moves quickly in terms of making decisions and being able to attract doctors and get equipment and staff. We can often move quickly so we’re often out in front, in terms of achieving things and making advances," she said.

ECH was one of the first hospitals in the world to implement a computerized medical information system in 1971—at a time when most people in the world had never even heard the word “computer."

Twitchell said the joint project was with Lockheed, located in Sunnyvale.

“They were looking for some physician uses for some of their space technology, so because they were so close to each other, it was a fortuitous arrangement,” she said.

Even to this day, Twitchell explained the percentage of ECH’s physicians or other caregivers using computers for keeping patient records and charts is one of the highest in the country for a hospital.

“I think that’s largely because we’ve been doing it for so long,” she said. “We were one of the first.”

ECH has a long history of accolades and honors.

In 2009, Popular Science Magazine named it “the most technologically advanced hospital in the world,” thanks to advances in areas like robotic science, such as the “cyber knife”—a robotic type of radiation therapy used in surgery that can excise tumors very precisely, and can sense movements of the patient’s body like breathing and adjust itself in an extremely accurate way.

Hospitals and Health Networks Magazine, a publication of the American Hospital Association, has named ECH as one of the “100 Most Wired Hospitals” for five years running.

ECH ranks high in terms of patient care, too.

In 2000, Professional Resource Consultants, a patient satisfaction market research firm, named ECH its top hospital for inpatient care, out of 120 client hospitals nationwide. The hospital also received the President’s Award for Customer Satisfaction, out of 300 hospitals that participated in the Professional Resource Consultants survey—and was the first hospital to score high enough on the survey to earn the award.

However, the hospital has not been without its challenges.

The board of directors decided suddenly and without explanation earlier this year to allow former CEO Ken Graham’s contract to expire on June 30, barely two months after he received the 2011 Gold Medal Award from the American College of Health Care Executives, an international professional society of more than 30,000 health care executives. and also acts as interim CEO. Meanwhile, the firm Russell Reynolds continues to conduct a nationwide search for a new, permanent CEO.

Ever Expanding

In 2000, though, a challenge of a different variety presented an unexpected opportunity for something wonderful for ECH—a new hospital. Newer, stricter state codes for earthquake safety meant that a large overhaul of the decades-old hospital building would be needed, in order to comply.

However, ECH decided it was time to go a different route.

“The old building needed so much retrofitting, they decided it was just easier to build a new building,” said Van Dyck.

The local community pulled together with the financial support once again, and construction on a brand new hospital began in 2006. An ultra-modern, new building opened in November 2009.

“It looks like a hotel,” said Van Dyck, describing the new private rooms for patients and all the careful, nature-inspired touches placed around the hospital.

The Rev. Mary Ellen Garnier, a former nurse who is now the hospital's chaplain, has been with the hospital on and off since 1970. Garnier says she never could have imagined what the hospital would become when she first walked through its doors more than 40 years ago.

“I think it would have been really hard to comprehend having a new building back then, and just the dynamics of this new place,” she said of the hospital’s new home. “We were looking at this structure and watching it go up, and I think we all felt this connection to it. And then we all learned, together, how to function in this new place.”

She says many of the hospital’s other advances, expansions and improvements have almost constantly surprised her, throughout the years.

“I could never have envisioned they would have a cancer center or a palliative care center, like we have now,” she added. “It’s really a dynamic place to be.”

Just two months before the new hospital opened in November 2009, ECH gained yet another building—that of the former Community Hospital of Los Gatos.

“Taking advantage of an unexpected opportunity in the local market, the hospital acquired the assets of the former Community Hospital of Los Gatos and opened it as El Camino Hospital Los Gatos,” said Twitchell. “As a result, five more communities in the West Valley corridor were added to the hospital’s growing service area.”

Twitchell says ECH is constantly evolving.

“The history of El Camino Hospital is still being written, every day, by its employees, physicians, volunteers and patients," she said.

Bernis Kretchmar August 19, 2011 at 04:50 PM
Thank you Judy Twitchell and Judy Van Dyck for the excellent article on the 50th Anniversary of El Camino Hospital...Happy Birthday to an outstanding community asset. We have had 3 granddaughters births and several surgeries personally and the quality of care has been extraordinary. The community is so fortunate for the vision of those early Los Altos physicians.
Claudia Cruz (Editor) August 19, 2011 at 05:10 PM
Hello Bernis, thank you for your great comment and I'm glad you've had excellent service at El Camino Hospital. Just for clarification, the article was written by Patch reporter Jennifer Van der Kleut. Twitchell and Van Dyck served as sources. Also, we are running a series of these, so please check back.
Bernis Kretchmar August 19, 2011 at 05:46 PM
Hi Claudia, Great article with great sources Thank you Jenifer Van der Kleut. Will look forward to reading more of the series. BK
Jennifer van der Kleut August 20, 2011 at 05:09 PM
Thank you Mr. Kretchmar, glad you liked it! Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

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