Long Beach was one of the fastest-growing communities in the country when St. Mary Medical Center first opened its doors 100 years ago.
It was 1923, and in St. Mary’s place was not a clinical hospital, but instead a “medical spa” that was constructed around 1904. The owner at the time, Dr. Truman Boyd, sold the building to the Sisters of Charity of the Incarnate Word for $160,000.
The 70-bed facility officially opened its doors on August 26, 1923.
“St. Mary will make Long Beach a better place for all,” said the leader, Mother Placidus, at the time, according to Michael Neils, president and CPO of the St. Mary Medical Center Foundation.
That has been the lasting legacy of the hospital ever since, Neils said.
“It’s our ongoing commitment,” Neils said. “We will provide services for you, regardless of your ability to pay or not. If you are in need, we’re here for you. And we really do make Long Beach a better place.”
A decade after the hospital opened, a 6.4-magnitude earthquake shook Long Beach, destroying St. Mary in its entirety—including the hospital, convent and chapel. Over 70 people were in the hospital that day, but nobody was injured.
With the help of William Reid, the chairman of Hancock Oil, St. Mary was rebuilt, reopening to the public in 1937.
Decades of growth
Over the following decades, St. Mary continued to expand.
After World War II, with the help of hotel mogul Conrad Hilton, St. Mary more than doubled its capacity, from 100 beds to 253 beds.
Then in 1970, officials broke ground on the construction of a $10 million, 10-story project, which was supported with a $4.3 million gift from Modestus and Evalyn Bauer, an expansion which included private patient rooms, a larger emergency department, a new intensive care unit and heart care unit, and maternal child health services.
In its long history, St. Mary has celebrated numerous firsts, Neils said.
Last month, “we had an event for some people from the Rotary Club of Long Beach, and one of the men there was visiting, had the first open heart surgery in Long Beach in 1955 as a kid,” Neils said.
Today, St. Mary employs more than 1,500 people and has an operating budget of over $400 million a year. St. Mary is part of the CommonSpirit Health hospital system, which includes 142 hospitals across the country.
Over time, the focus has shifted more toward the needs of the immediate ZIP code, although the hospital cares for the entire city, Neils said.
In 2022 alone, St. Mary provided in-house services to over 58,000 people, accounting for nearly 13% of Long Beach’s population.
“We are caring in a big way now for people who have no place else to go,” he said.
A focus on health equity
St. Mary is a “disproportionate share” hospital, meaning it cares for far more Medi-Cal or uninsured patients than the typical hospital, Neils said.
Overall, 70% of patients are on Medi-Cal insurance or are completely uninsured, and last year, the hospital absorbed about $29 million of reimbursed medical costs, Neils said.
However, “with the challenges come opportunity,” Neils said.
Recognizing that housing-insecure patients would come into the emergency department for numerous issues within a short period of time, St. Mary began providing case management through a partnership with Mental Health America LA and a UniHealth Foundation grant.
“Those challenges also offer us a chance to provide innovative care—let’s not just treat this person over and over again. Let’s see if we can help this person so that she doesn’t have to come here all the time,” Neils said. “And we’re really grateful for success stories like that, increasingly, in the whole world of nonprofits, but it’s especially true in the field of medicine. We love to collaborate. We don’t just stand on our own.”
To Neils, what is equally important has been St. Mary’s efforts to reach the wider community through a variety of health initiatives such as the community grants program.
“I love that about St. Mary, obviously we take good care of you when you come in the door, but we’re out there trying to make sure you don’t have to come here,” Neils said.
In 1976, St. Mary opened its Low Vision Center, which provides free vision screening to underserved children. Its Families in Good Health program, which was formed in response to the immigration of many Cambodian people to Long Beach following the Khmer Rouge genocide, provides a wide range of services from parenting workshops to tobacco prevention for teens, and served over 8,000 people last year, almost all of which were grant-funded and free.
Two or three days a week, a mobile clinic, funded by the Port of Long Beach, provides services ranging from blood pressure screening to support with chronic respiratory conditions, Neils said.
“Health care doesn’t just happen in the four walls of the hospital,” said St. Mary Medical Center president and CEO Carolyn Caldwell. “So we’re out in the community, making sure that we can reach as many people as possible, because access is also important as well.”
Issues with transportation and fear surrounding hospitals can sometimes create barriers with accessing care, particularly for marginalized communities, Caldwell said.
“If you go to them, if you go to their community center or their churches, they are more likely to receive care, and there’s an element of trust that’s there,” she said.
Perhaps one of St. Mary’s most significant equity-focused efforts came in the 1980s, amid a wave of AIDS cases, which at the time was still largely misunderstood, Neils said.
“You couldn’t be admitted to a hospital. Doctors wouldn’t provide care for you, because nobody knew where the boundaries were,” Neils said.
AIDS was identified as a disease in 1981, and 1986, “the nuns who were running this hospital looked at Long Beach and said, ‘Well, we don’t know what it is, but people are dying. And we’re not going to let them die alone.’”
What became known as the CARE Center still remains today, and it provides services to about 2,000 patients each year, some of whom are living with HIV, while others are considered at-risk, Neils said.
“They’re a community of people who can be marginalized by many, but they’re welcome here,” Neils said.
Neils and Caldwell agree that for St. Mary, the largest challenge arose in 2020, with the start of the pandemic.
St. Mary’s intensive care unit has 40 beds. But at the height of the pandemic, there were 108 COVID-19 patients in the hospital, Neils said.
“Nobody was prepared for COVID,” he said.
A huge obstacle presented itself, Neils said—in the beginning, “nobody knew what COVID was, and then how to treat it.”
The hospital had to navigate rearranging space, and staffing difficulties—Neils noted that a critical staffing shortage, particularly among registered nurses, is facing hospitals across the country, including at St. Mary.
Adding to the challenge of staffing is that, nowadays, young people are far more mobile, Neils said.
“We don’t necessarily get people right out of nursing school, who are gonna be here the rest of their lives,” he said.
Amid the challenges of navigating the pandemic, being part of a larger organization was highly beneficial, Caldwell said.
“We never ran out of anything, even if we got low on supplies, our wonderful supply chain could look across our system,” Caldwell said.
Improving communication, reacting quickly, and collaborating with other hospitals in the community, city officials, as well as state government, were “critical,” Caldwell said.
Once the vaccine became available, it was “a wonderful feeling,” said Caldwell, noting the additional benefit of Long Beach having its own health department.
As of late last month, St. Mary had one COVID-19 patient, she said.
The St. Mary of today
Over the past 100 years, St. Mary has seen drastic changes in technology and innovations in medicine—some of which didn’t exist just 10 years ago, Neils said.
Outcomes for patients who suffer from strokes are far better today than just a few years ago, as are outcomes for babies who are born prematurely, Neils said. At St. Mary, over 200,000 babies have been born in its 100-year history.
“As health care has expanded, we’ve made sure that as a hospital and as an organization, that we expanded, that we grow as well, so we can make sure our patients are getting that same level of care,” Caldwell said.
Due to the ever-changing nature of medicine and technology, St. Mary staff is constantly in continuing education, Neils said.
“But at the heart of St. Mary, is compassion. When you’re treated here, you’re treated with deep respect.”
Executives frequently visit patients in their rooms, and Neils makes his rounds each Friday morning.
Universally, people share their love of the nurses, Neils said.
“‘We love their patience, their kindness, they go way out of their way,’ And that’s a great thing to be able to hear. And I hear it every week from people.”
The future of St. Mary
Just as St. Mary has evolved over the years, it will continue to do so into the future.
For instance, to combat the disproportionately low percentage of African American physicians, St. Mary has partnered with the historically Black, all-male Morehouse College. Morehouse and CommonSpirit are each contributing $100 million to getting more Black students admitted to medical school, who will have an opportunity to complete their residencies at one of CommonSpirit’s 142 hospitals, an initiative that Neils hopes will extend to other historically underserved communities.
In addition, Neils hopes and expects that between 2030 and 2040, St. Mary’s parent company will support the construction of a new hospital.
“You always need a place for surgery for people to recover, for babies to be born and so forth. But medicine is changing,” Neils said.
For Caldwell, the hope is that St. Mary is able to continue evolving to offer cutting-edge and high quality care, she said.
To make it to 100 years is “remarkable,” Caldwell said.
As the Long Beach community has grown, so has St. Mary, Caldwell said.
“So this, this hospital, being a part of the Downtown Long Beach area, being able to reach out and serve this community and provide care that is equitable for everyone—I see our hospital as that beacon of hope, you know, that people can look to us and know that they’re gonna get great care,” Caldwell said.
Caldwell referenced the original mission of the founding Sisters—to ensure that equitable care is provided to everyone, regardless of who they are or their ability to pay.
“And that’s what we will continue to do,” Caldwell said.
St. Mary Medical Center’s centennial day is August 26. Community members are invited to join St. Mary on September 30 for a day-long street fair, which will include food, drinks, cultural dances, live music, local merchants, and family games and activities, located at the St. Mary campus, 1050 Linden Ave. For sponsorship or vendor inquiries, please contact Michael Neils at Michael.Neils@commonspirit.org.