A Catskill Catalog: Oct. 29, 2008

When I first came to this part of the Catskills, Margaretville Memorial Hospital, on Route 28, was still referred to as “the new hospital.” Forward-looking men and women of the Upper East Branch Valley had conducted major community fund-raising a few years before, raising astounding thousands of dollars for the effort. The new hospital was a source of community pride: a bricks and mortar example of what a community can accomplish when focused on a tangible goal.
It was also, then as now, a wonderful little hospital, one of six independent rural community hospitals in Delaware County at the time. Walton’s Delaware Valley Hospital, Delhi’s O’Connor Hospital, The Hospital of Sidney, and MMH are still in business, although all are presently affiliated with a larger, stronger entity. The Stamford and Hancock hospitals are no longer with us, victims of the precarious nature of the health-care business.
The hospital boasted a team of outstanding nurses, a cadre of women who provided each patient a level of care, commitment, and concern that was the hospital’s calling card. Joanie Asher, Betty Griffin, Bucky George, Barb Kapitko – mentioning some leaves out others, but many readers will continue the list from memory.
The hospital attracted physicians and surgeons to practice here. Dr. Spector delivered babies. Doctors Halim and Abrahao did surgery. Dr. Abe Rottkov had a general practice in Fleischmanns. I loved his practical approach to medicine: “A guy gets hit over the head with a beer bottle,” I heard him once say, “he doesn’t need a bunch of tests. He needs a bandage!”
Margaretville Memorial Hospital was founded in 1931 in a two-story frame farmhouse located at the western edge of that village. Eight years later the new central school would be built on the field just below the hospital.
There had always been a rudimentary system of medical care in the rural Catskills. From the late 19th century through the early 20th century, general practice physicians made house calls, midwives delivered babies, and a few area nurses provided 24-hour sick care in the patient’s home. In those days, patients needing surgery or hospitalization had to travel to Kingston City Hospital or to Oneonta.
Dr. Gordon Maurer, a surgeon, settled in Margaretville in 1926, and began to provide surgical services in the operating room of his clinic, located in several village houses the doctor rented. In 1931, he purchased the farmhouse of Sinclare Archibald to establish a proper hospital. Margaretville Hospital became a memorial to Dr. Maurer in 1938. The young doctor, an avid hunter, was killed in a tragic early morning hunting accident in November of that year. The impressive monument to Dr. Maurer in the old Margaretville Cemetery has been featured in a book of American epitaphs.
In the post-war years, Margaretville Memorial Hospital flourished under the medical leadership of doctors Gilbert Palen and C. Ray Huggins. A surgeon and an internist, the two delivered a sophisticated level of medical care to their rural patients. Dr. Palen, a pilot as well as a surgeon, made Margaretville one of the first hospitals to use modern anti-biotic drugs. He would fly his small plane to Philadelphia to pick up the medicine, then fly it back here, landing, he once told me, on the old fairgrounds by the river.
Recently, I was told the story of the two doctors, back in the 1950s, building a small bonfire of invoices for medical service provided, invoices they knew their economically-strapped patients would not be able to pay. I’m told the two doctors burned-up over $100,000 worth of bills.
My friend, the doctor’s son, used to tell me how the family table was often graced with a string of trout, or leg of venison, or a dozen eggs that the good doctor had been given in payment for services rendered.
Money has always been an issue in providing health-care. Back in the ’70s, the new hospital always seemed on shaky financial ground. Some waited for it to fail, planning for future uses of the building as a middle school or community center. But the wise among us knew that the hospital could not be allowed to fail. Without it, we are simply too far away.
One used to be able to become a life member of the hospital for a total donation of something like $50. Life members met in an annual meeting – in good years in a church basement with 20 or so people in attendance. In years of controversy, several hundred life-members would gather in the school gym. The life members would elect the board of directors, who ran the hospital.
In 2001, the life members put themselves out of business, merging the hospital into the health-care system generated by the Kingston Hospital, today known as Health Alliance Planning.