We live in strange times

I first noticed the phenomena while attending college in Billings, Montana. The city had two hospitals, located several blocks apart. It seemed that ever time a home or any other piece of real estate anywhere around the hospitals came on the market, the customer was one of the hospitals. As the hospitals grew and added new sections of building there developed a medical corridor. The last few holdout homes were tiny islands in the middle of a sea of hospital construction.

Decades later, we lived in Boise Idaho, also home to two hospitals, though they are located farther apart than was the case in Billings. At one point, after we had lived there for 5 years or so, I commented that it seemed that both hospitals were continually in a state of construction. Before one construction project was completed, there would be another project. New wings were added, areas within the hospitals were remodeled, The trailers of the construction companies seemed to have gained a permanent location in the parking lots of the hospitals as they continued to grow.

Those thoughts came to my mind once again this week as i was driving south on 5th street in the area that once was pretty much open fields and now is definitely Rapid City’s medical corridor. Rapid City has a unique history with hospitals. Like other cities its size, it once had two hospitals. There were some duplications of services. Both hospitals had maternity wards and both offered emergency rooms. There were some areas of specialization, however. Orthopedics were concentrated in one hospital. Then, in 1972, the Rapid City flood rendered one of the hospital buildings unusable. In the recovery that followed, the two hospitals became one entity and funds were obtained to construct a new building in a new location. For many years the single community hospital posted efficiencies. The modern 10-story building was actually larger than originally needed and it took many years before all of the patient care rooms in the building were completed and put to use.

Years have passed and things have changed. There is now a smaller specialty hospital just down the street from the main hospital. The specialty hospital is currently undergoing its third expansion since it was originally constructed. The main hospital is in the midst of a huge construction and expansion that will result in a completely new emergency department, a new rehabilitation hospital, a parking garage and a whole lot more. The corner of the hospital property appears to be a nearly permanent home for the construction company trailers.

My new commentary is that perhaps hospitals should consider owning construction cranes, since both buildings seem to have cranes as permanent features of their property. I know those cranes are expensive to rent. The nearly perpetual presence of construction cranes on hospital property is an indication of the enormous amounts of money that are involved in contemporary health care.

It isn’t just the hospital buildings. Medical offices have sprung up all around the area. Two and three story tall entry ways with port cocheres are common.

Hospitals have become the cathedrals of the 21st century. They constitute the largest, most extravagant and highest cost construction in many cities. One day, while receiving routine medical care, I started to count the number of original works of art that adorned the lobby, hallways and examining rooms of the medical practice. It was truly amazing. It is clear that medical buildings now have become the kinds of patrons of the arts that was once the case only for churches.

Churches, in the meantime, have opted for more austere buildings in recent times. Several congregations in our community have constructed buildings that are utilitarian. They tend to have few windows, inexpensive commercial carpet over concrete floors, and very little in the way of artwork. One person with whom I was visiting recently said that when she was a young girl, she thought that statues only existed in churches. These days, its hard to find a statue in a new church building. Our city is a fairly large customer of art, having many outdoor art pieces, but I doubt that any of the artists in our community would have enough food to eat if it weren’t for the fact that medical offices and hospitals purchase large numbers of art works.

It makes me wonder what archeologists of the future will think of the remains of the buildings we have built. Then again, they may never get the chance. The recent hospital expansion involved tearing down the old rehabilitation hospital. The building they tore down wasn’t 50 years old, but was considered to be too old to be worth keeping. It was simply torn down to make room for the new construction. What appears to be permanent, long term, construction with steel reinforced concrete and steel beams has, in some cases, an amazingly short lifespan. Bigger, better, grander seems to be the norm.

In medieval times, cathedrals were designed to be imposing spaces. Worshipers entered through gigantic doors and the ceilings of the rooms towered over them in ways that made the individual feel small in comparison with the grandeur of the space. Modern church buildings don’t have that same style. But hospitals and medical practices have taken over that role. I’ve often found my eyes turned up towards the soaring ceilings of the entryways into medical practices. My family doctor works in a building that is of relatively simple construction, but has a vaulted ceiling over the entryway that is higher than the ceiling in the sanctuary of our church and our church building is 60 years old and the product of the thinking of another century.

I am grateful for the jobs that construction provides. They are good jobs that support families in our community. Some days, however, I wonder if there are more people working on constructing new buildings for medical practices than there are people working in providing direct care for patients. I’m pretty sure that the new orthopedic and sports medicine center south of town has fewer cars in the parking lot now that it is completed than was the case when it was under construction.

We live in strange times. People have thought that for nearly as long as there have been people on this planet.

Copyright (c) 2019 by Ted E. Huffman. I wrote this. If you would like to share it, please direct your friends to my web site. If you'd like permission to copy, please send me an email. Thanks!