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Brits abroad - medical report from Chester County, PA

Between lashings of potato and leek soup at Kildare’s, I have been spending time at Chester County Hospital where my aunt had an unexpected but swift and successful operation with a laser to relieve a painful condition. As the name of the hospital suggests, Chester County, Pennsylvania, was founded and rapidly settled by Britons leaving Britain over several centuries.

In the early 1890s the people of West Chester started a hospital. This was later than the hundreds of hospitals founded in Britain, but the town was small – there were only 8,000 people. However, in both Britain and America it was the people, not the government, who pulled together, and organized the building and operation of their hospitals. In West Chester they raised the necessary funds with bequests and “concerts, dances, cake sales and Shakespeare readings”, wrote a charter and rules of organization, and proceeded to open their first building in 1893. The electric and phone companies provided utilities free of charge, the ice company supplied free ice, and the fire company transported patients.

The first physicians to provide services were doctors with English and Irish names - Aitken, Dunn, Massey, Sharpless, Woodward, Price, Patrick, and Cheyney - Dr. Mary Cheyney. The head nurse was Mary Marshall. By 1894 the town had a nursing school up and running. The nurses worked 12 hours on the wards then took classes. The nurses and the doctors were dedicated. They were in the front lines. When typhoid, influenza, and scarlet fever struck, as they did in the early 20th century, they were often stricken while tending patients.

The tradition of caring for the ill despite the risk to oneself and of giving care to the poor goes back to early Christian teachings and practices. It was the tradition in every hospital in Britain at least as early as St. Bart’s, which was founded in the 12th century.

In Britain, Drs Joseph Lister and William Cheyne introduced antiseptic principles to surgery in the 1860s. Chester County Hospital followed their example in sterilizing surgical instruments and fighting infection, though the hospital’s first operation was slightly marred when the surgeon ran out of ligature and resorted to unsterilized black thread pulled from his suit.

Chester County Hospital has been expanding ever since, partly due to the generosity of a major benefactor. It remains a non-profit, locally governed and independent hospital with a foundation that raises and invests contributions for operational support. Hospital doctors are in private practice. A variety of private and public insurance plans pay for patient care.

The hospital is spotless. Everyone I met from doctors to nurses to receptionists was kind and professional. When a volunteer ambassador visited my aunt at her bedside to enquire whether she had any complaints about her care, her only complaint was the hospital gown, which did not close to her satisfaction. It must be one of those unspoken hospital protocols used all over the world – loose fitting gowns that do not stay closed so the patient, like a rose bush, can receive lots of fresh air.