Thinking Beyond

Envisioned as a “mini Mayo Clinic” in 1946, French Hospital celebrates 75 years

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The hospital has a culture of Carism and is now one of the country’s “100 Great Community Hospitals” for exemplary medical care and patient experience

BY ALAN IFTINIUK, PRESIDENT & CEO, FRENCH HOSPITAL MEDICAL CENTER

This is my third and final article in a series documenting my observations and experiences as the president and CEO of French Hospital Medical Center since 2004. To read my previous stories please visit medium.com/@supportfrenchhospital.

Young Edison French and his older sisters, Inez and Ione, who died in the 1918 influenza pandemic, inspiring French to pursue a career in medicine.

“Inez French, daughter of Mr. and Mrs. George French, died of pneumonia at a hospital in San Jose Thursday evening,” the obituary read. “Her death comes as a particularly hard blow to the parents, as she is the second child to be taken within a week.”

Inez and her sister, Ione, both under the age of 14, were victims of the 1918 influenza pandemic — the largest pandemic in modern history, until the coronavirus in 2020.

The untimely loss of his two older sisters had a profound impact on 10-year-old Edison French. Deeply affected by his sisters’ suffering, Edison chose to pursue a career in medicine. He dedicated his life to providing the highest-quality health care by founding what would become French Hospital Medical Center, one of the country’s “100 Great Community Hospitals.”

French attended Loma Linda University School of Medicine and did his residency at the University of Pennsylvania. He then served for some years in the Navy Medical Corps before moving to San Luis Obispo to practice medicine in a more family-friendly community. In 1946, inspired by a tour of the famed Mayo Clinic, Dr. French purchased an old sanitarium with the vision of creating a “mini Mayo Clinic” on California’s Central Coast. He called it French Hospital.

The original French Hospital on Marsh Street in San Luis Obispo, Calif.

From there, Dr. French started bringing his vision to life. A skilled surgeon, he performed numerous firsts in the beautiful, rural city, including a lung resection and a collapsed lung therapy, and introduced the use of intravenous anesthesia and other advanced treatments.

Just as important as these ground-breaking procedures and tools, however, was creating a culture of “Carism.” Dr. French wanted his hospital to be a place where caregivers provided the highest-quality care at an affordable cost and genuinely cared about patients as people. It would be a true community hospital where medical professionals took the best possible care of their friends and neighbors. It was his philosophy that the very best care, was care close to home.

Dr. Louis Tedone — San Luis Obispo’s first pediatrician and one of Dr. French’s first recruited specialists — with a young patient.

As the local population continued to grow in the 1950s, Dr. French knew the hospital needed more experienced doctors, so he worked hard to bring more specialists to the area. One of the first to come on board was Dr. French’s brother, George, an orthopedic surgeon.

Inspired by his older brother, George left his job at an apricot cannery to attend San Jose State University and then Stanford University School of Medicine. He finished residency on the East Coast and then moved to San Luis Obispo to practice orthopedic medicine with his brother. He would go on to perform the first total hip replacement in San Luis Obispo County in 1970.

Another top recruit was the much loved and highly respected Dr. Louis Tedone, the area’s first pediatrician. A Brooklyn native, Dr. Tedone left a successful career in pediatrics to serve as an officer in the U.S. Army during the Korean War. He was assigned to Camp Roberts, an army base in northern San Luis Obispo County. In 1953, Dr. French invited him to join the team at French Hospital, where he stayed for more than 20 years before starting his own practice.

More specialists joined the ranks soon after, including radiologist Dr. Tibor Beresky, ophthalmologist Dr. Tony Keese, pathologist Dr. Tom McKellar, anesthesiologist Dr. Gene Petrick, OB/Gyn Dr. Bramwell Anthony and others. The French Hospital “dream team” was rounded out by top-notch nurses, administrative personnel and other staff. The hospital even partnered with other local hospitals to retrain former registered nurses during a critical shortage in the 1960s.

French Hospital’s state-of-the-art catheterization laboratory in 1981. The space allowed for more cutting-edge cardiac equipment and treatments.

In 1975, Dr. French brought on cardiologist Dr. David Harvey to develop what would become the hospital’s nationally ranked heart surgery program. By then, the growing hospital had moved to a newer, bigger campus in order to accommodate more patients and specialty units.

When Dr. French finally decided to retire, a group of his passionate recruits convinced him to sell the hospital to them. The staff’s dedicated, caring culture went above and beyond what people would expect at a small-town hospital.

Dr. Edison French in 1985.

Though Dr. French passed away in 1985, his vision of recruiting physicians from top medical schools, using the latest advanced technologies, and providing affordable, high-quality care is a promise French Hospital Medical Center continues to keep.

To date, we have expanded to include the renowned Copeland, Forbes & Rossi Cardiac Care Center, the Copeland Health Education Pavilion, the Stollmeyer Family Birthing CenterHearst Cancer Resource Center, the Oppenheimer Family Center for Emergency Medicine, and much more.

When COVID-19 broke out in 2020, spurring the greatest medical emergency of our time, our frontline heroes worked tirelessly to provide the best care possible to the San Luis Obispo community.

When the worst happens, the local community knows they can rely on French Hospital. In an emergency, timing is everything. So we have taken steps to continue preparing for the future. The $130-million Beyond Health campaign will upgrade facilities, technologies and procedures to exceed our community’s needs and expectations.

The French Hospital of the future, Your New French Hospital, will be a culmination of Dr. French’s vision of superior health care and set the standard for care on the Central Coast with:

  • A new four-story, 85,000-square-foot patient care tower with 56 new single-patient rooms
  • A 16-bed (all state-of-the-art private, family-oriented) Neonatal Intensive Care Unit
  • An additional 10 Intensive Care Unit beds, bringing the total to 21 (all single rooms)
  • Expanded space for imaging, labs, pharmacy and more
  • Enhanced and advanced technologies and services
  • A helistop helicopter landing pad for critical emergencies
  • A new front entrance, lobby, and dining area
  • An interfaith chapel open to all for prayer, meditation, learning and group services
  • Holistic grounds and healing spaces
  • A rooftop garden terrace providing space for sensory stimulation, socializing, and outdoor activities
  • A new parking pavilion

My final takeaway is that this very unique and special hospital is historically and culturally committed to exceeding patient expectations through exceptional quality, safety, and service, a.k.a. “Carism.” I would sum up my observations about the staff at French Hospital, and its proud legacy of caring, in two words — resilience and compassion. That is, successful hospitals have the capacity to overcome adversity, adapt, bounce back, strategically grow and continue to anticipate and exceed the expectations of their community.

In 2014, French Hospital unveiled a hybrid cardiac surgery suite that enables staff to perform surgeries and imaging procedures without moving patients.

As our staff and community celebrate French Hospital’s legacy of 75 years of care, we look forward to the future of French Hospital Medical Center and many years to come. To learn more about Your New French Hospital, visit www.gobeyondhealth.org or follow #75YearsofCare on Facebook, Instagram and LinkedIn.