Memories abound of Johnson City Memorial, Appalachian hospitals
Story and photos by Jeff Keeling
Some, like Nola Johnson, had come to Johnson City’s downtown hospital (Appalachian and then Memorial) in hopes of carving out a better life – and succeeded. Others, such as Bill Bridgforth and Fred Deakins, had been born within its walls and returned to serve there years later.
They made Johnson City Memorial Hospital what it was in the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s, and to some extent, the hospital made them what they were.
More than three decades after it admitted its last patients, the grand edifice on Fairview Avenue hosted nearly three dozen former employees during a “Flashback Friday.” Organized by The Lexington Senior Living, which opened on the premises in 2013 after a massive renovation project, the event evoked a flood of memories for the nurses, doctors and others who came to share fellowship, stories and a tour.
Those stories were as rich and varied as the lives of the individuals who told them. Doctors had come to try and raise the level of care in Johnson City. Nurses had, in some cases, been girls of limited means who had made the most of their chances to catch on in a solid career field. Retired doctor Bill Bridgforth had been delivered by Lewis Cosby in Appalachian Hospital – the smaller facility off of which Memorial was built – then joined Cosby’s pediatric practice a quarter-century or so later.
For Johnson, it was a chance to see old friends, including class of 1946 nursing school classmate Juanita Chandler. The pair had come as teenagers to train at the hospital. Chandler was a country girl from Sulphur Springs, but Johnson was from even further – Upper Higgins Creek in Unicoi County.
“I had to walk two miles just to catch a bus, to then catch another bus to get to high school in Erwin,” Johnson remembered. Before her junior year, though, she had been befriended by Floyd and Vicy Blair, who let her live with them her last two years and then paid for her to go to nursing school.
“They were very good to me, and I kept a close relationship with them the rest of their lives,” Johnson said. “I didn’t really have specific aspirations before I lived with them, but they saw something in me.”
Chandler married young and was a patient in addition to being an employee just a year or so after graduating. “I had my first baby here in 1947 and it cost me $50,” she remembered.
Children were in good hands at the hospital, Julia Bowman Martin remembered. Her father, Dr. J.R. Bowman, was a leading pediatrician there. She showed the gathered crowd Dr. Bowman’s old medical bag as she described how “my dad loved children and did some really outstanding things in helping save them.”
She dreamed as a child of following in his footsteps, but the good doctor dissuaded her, saying women shouldn’t be doctors. Martin still went on to become a successful speech pathologist. She ultimately won an apology from her father as the field became less male-dominated, and also heard this admission: “It’s the nurses that do the care.”
That is something Patricia Eunis (then Patricia Greer Clark) learned quickly when she started her LPN training in 1959. Eunis was a kid from Keystone (born in Appalachian Hospital) who had married after her sophomore year in high school, then earned her GED. Her in-laws paid for her to study under Mel Adams and Pauline Wilson at the hospital, and her on-the-job training got serious in a hurry.
Pulling out a faded newspaper clipping, Eunis described how she was assigned to care for Kenny Osborne, an 18-year-old who had been severely injured in a March, 1959 car accident that had killed two other youngsters.
“My first and most memorable challenge was the day I was assigned to be the nurse to Kenny,” Eunis said.
Osborne had been comatose and clinging to life for several weeks. He wasn’t expected to pull through, but “we were hoping and praying he would come out of that coma,” Eunis said. She sat with him and – having been told that hearing is last sense to go in such situations – read aloud healing passages from the Bible and jokes from the Readers Digest, the two books that were at hand.
And so the stories went. Fred Deakins’ recalled returning from Vietnam to serve as an orderly, x-ray technician, nurse and house supervisor before moving on to Johnson City Medical Center and working there until 2000.
“I told people if my parents would ever pay the bill, maybe I could get out of here,” said Deakins, adding that after service as a medic near the height of the war, nothing at the hospital phased him much.
Norma Greene came from her home near the hospital to look for people she worked with for 40 years, from the time the Happy Valley graduate started nursing school in 1953. She found a few.
Paulette Anderson, The Lexington’s executive director, said she hopes the facility can host similar events on a quarterly basis.
Smiling as she chatted with Mildred Cooper, one of the event’s organizers, and Lorene Kyker, retired nurse Ellen Ferguson summed it up succinctly: “It’s wonderful.”