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The Long Good-bye

Eight years later, wrecking ball reduces old hospital to rubble

The tearing-down of the old UCH, viewed from the north side.
The tearing-down of the old UCH, viewed from the north side.

by Tyler Smith | UCHealth

Eight years ago, University of Colorado Hospital completed the last leg of a historic relocation to the Anschutz Medical Campus from its longtime home on Ninth Avenue in central Denver. As the anniversary approaches, the swing of the wrecking ball continues to reduce the most venerable symbol of the connection between the two to a pile of rubble.

The old home of UCH is being demolished as part of a “mixed-use redevelopment project” that will one day put homes, restaurants, hotels, and public space on the land the hospital once shared with the CU School of Medicine and the other Health Sciences schools. A portion of the north side of the old building is now torn away, the ruined façade standing behind chain-link fence and signs warning passers-by to keep out. Soon it will be gone.

But memories remain. Marion Tolch, RN, remembers the old place when it began rising in 1964. She’d arrived from St. Louis to work in the General Surgery/Obstetrics and Gynecology wing of what was then the state-run Colorado General Hospital. She began work in a facility on the south side of Ninth Avenue she called “a disaster.” It featured huge open wards that required long walks to the bathroom and a fledgling surgical intensive care unit that lacked running water.

Patients moved across the bridge spanning Ninth Avenue and into the new facility in the spring of 1965. “I thought it was the Taj Mahal,” Tolch remembered.

Colorado General was still a “sparkling clean hospital” when EJ Amrhein, RN, began working there in 1969. “I thought it was exactly what a hospital should look like,” Amrhein recalled.

The bridge spanning Ninth Avenue stands as a reminder of what once was.

Link to the past

Both Tolch and Amrhein would spend large portions of their careers at the Ninth Avenue hospital, beginning as staff nurses and moving on to head nurse positions, as they were then called. Along the way, they formed many relationships that now stand as links between the old and new campuses.

Tolch, for example, was head nurse of the 4 West OB/Gyn Unit in 1976 when a new graduate nurse named Sue West arrived. West went on to succeed Tolch as head nurse of the unit, then became director of Risk Management in 1987. She added director responsibilities for Clinical Excellence and Patient Safety, Infection Control, the Medical Staff Office, and Patient Relations in 2004. In a neat closing of the circle, Tolch, who retired in 2003, now works part-time for West in Risk Management.

In an opposite twist, as director of Risk Management, West also managed Carolyn Sanders, RN, PhD. Nearly three decades later, West reports to Sanders, who is now chief nursing officer for UCH and chief nursing executive for University of Colorado Health. Amrhein jokes she taught Greg Stiegmann, MD, what he needed to know as a surgical resident in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Stiegmann became a highly respected surgeon with the hospital as well as its vice president of clinical affairs, a post he still holds today.

Amrhein herself not only made the final move from the Ninth Avenue campus to the Anschutz Medical Campus, she also played a major role in making it happen. She worked closely as a senior project manager with then-Vice President of Operations Tony Ruiz and representatives from around the hospital on an Oversight Committee managing the thousands of details that culminated in the successful transition of all remaining patients from the hospital in Denver to Aurora on June 17, 2007.

This old home

Like many homes, the Ninth Avenue hospital had some quirks. Distinctive shutters on the south side built to shield patients’ rooms from the sun were at first a “claim to fame,” Tolch said, but once they were closed, patients couldn’t see out. A series of underground tunnels connected the hospital to the medical school and other important stops, like the morgue, Amrhein said. Laura Hinrichs, RN, now a nurse with the UCHealth DocLine, recalls the hospital didn’t have night-shift cafeteria service, so staff used the tunnel to go out through the School of Medicine to a nearby 7-Eleven for snacks.

“Purchased lots of Chunky Monkey and Cherry Garcia ice cream, burritos and cereal!” she wrote in an email.

By the early 1980s, the hospital started to show its age. A lack of funding from the state left basic amenities like furniture in disrepair, Amrhein recalled. After duct-taping chairs and couches – at the same time they went without pay increases – nurses grew so frustrated they conducted a sick-out that left supervisors like Amrhein scrambling to cover shifts. Then-governor Richard Lamm finally settled the stalemate.

“It was quite an ordeal,” Amrhein said.

As the hospital grew and searched for more space, there were constant renovations, many of them involving asbestos removal, Amrhein added. When West began in Risk Management in 1987, she worked in a trailer outside the old Emergency Department. “When it rained or hailed, you couldn’t talk on the telephone,” she said.

The hospital had broken from the state and become University of Colorado Hospital in 1989 when Shannon Johnson (now Johnson Bortolotto) arrived in 1994 as a self-described “baby nurse.” Johnson, who still works at UCH as a critical care clinical nurse specialist, began her orientation in the poorly lit, cramped Surgical Intensive Care Unit, “essentially a large room on 5 North,” as she remembers it. Patients in isolation were separated from the gowning area by lines of tape around the bed. “How would organisms not cross that line of tape?” Johnson wondered, but as a newbie, she left the question unasked. 

Moving forward, looking back

The memories of those who were there offer a window to a largely vanished world. Patients stayed in the hospital longer than they do today and providers often got to know them well. As a new nurse, West lived across the street from campus. Her “fondest memory,” she said, was of a cancer patient she cared for her who could only eat Campbell’s tomato soup. West used her breaks to go home, open a can of soup, heat it up, and bring it back to the patient.

It’s not that nurses today don’t care as much as they used to, West emphasized. “What I hear from them today is they have no time to hang out in the room and have conversations with them,” she said. The hospital now cares for a much more acutely and chronically ill patient population, she added, and deals with far greater demands from payers to manage costs and length of stay.

There is no lamenting the loss of some relics of the past, like smoking on the units. “You’d be in a glassed-in area charting, and there would be a plume of smoke all around you,” West said. Tolch remembers the haze that greeted her when she walked on the unit.

By today’s standards, the resources available to providers at the old hospital were scarce. There were no computers for much of its history, and it wasn’t unusual for two nurses, with the help of a nursing assistant or an LPN, to cover a 30-bed unit. Nurses also often mixed the medications that came up from the pharmacy, Tolch said.

Staffing was a struggle at times. There were no agencies or float pools to draw on when people called in sick or when blizzards struck, like the historic Christmas Eve blizzard of 1982. For that one, Amrhein walked in from her home a couple of miles north of the hospital and stayed for five days. A command station was set up in the CEO’s office and the food service staff fed providers and patients out of cans and stocks in the freezer.

With little in the way of backup, head nurses like Amrhein and Tolch learned about round-the-clock care the hard way. “I spent many a night driving back to the hospital for a double shift,” Tolch said.

In the trenches

But the hard work built a strong sense of camaraderie, both during work hours and afterwards, the latter typically at the College Inn at Eighth Avenue and Colorado Boulevard. “You’d walk into the College Inn and everyone was in greens,” said Tolch, who for a time lived in a rented duplex down the street. “I’d stop off for a couple of drinks and walk home.”

After-shift trips to the College Inn to join with nurses, physicians, respiratory therapists, CNAs and others are also a favorite memory for Johnson Bortolotto. There they would toast a “miraculous save” or sit back after “witnessing a precious life transition to another place.” They celebrated one another, she said, “as our careers grew and we enjoyed that along this honorable life in health care, we had one another.”

Those I spoke to recall the past with pleasure and take pride in the care they provided. But they don’t lament the departure from Ninth Avenue. Rather, they see in it a necessary progression. As Johnson Bortolotto put it, “The challenges were that we were smaller in every way. We weren’t yet the leaders in quality or evidence-based care….We knew we were exceptional and were smart, yet didn’t ‘prove’ it the way we now do. The world has definitely changed for the better in that regard, progressively letting in more light and consistently thinking in a bigger way.”

Johnson Bortolotto’s own career reflects that progression. From the ICU at the old hospital, she moved to the adjoining Critical Care tower, erected in 1996, and into bigger, lighter, airier rooms. That tower, in turn, begat the even larger, more open ICUs in the inpatient towers at Anschutz.

The shifting tides of the medical industry simply demanded change, and the hospital responded, West said. “Our nursing care was good,” she said, “but there were different standards, and health care was different. We’re now recognized as a Magnet nursing facility and we’re postured to be a destination employer for faculty. We’re better now because of our close collaboration with the university and UPI.”

Amrhein wouldn’t disagree. Still, the news of the old hospital’s demolition hit hard.

“It was my first job. That’s probably why it is so sad,” she said. “It’s where I started my career and learned I could weather anything. I saw so many good things.”

Last Saturday, I drove by the old campus to take a look at the demolition for myself. The streets were mostly deserted as I walked along 11th Avenue behind the hospital, snapping a few photos of the ruined exterior. Returning to my car, I glanced out the window one more time, popped in a CD, and listened to a few oddly appropriate lines from Santana.


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