Guest Opinion: Village Matters

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The Hospital Frantics

ann christoph
By Ann Christoph

Margaret Fletcher heard I was working on a history of South Laguna and wanted to contribute her photos and a few stories. She was active in the South Laguna community, and her husband Joe was chief of the volunteer fire department and president of the South Laguna Civic Association as well as owner of the local Chevron station. Mostly the photos told the story of how residents worked to raise funds to build the hospital in the 1950s. 

At the time, there were no hospitals along the coast between Newport Beach and Oceanside. In response to the lack of prompt treatment and the resulting death of Laguna Beach police officer Gordon French in 1954, local residents initiated a campaign to establish a hospital in the Laguna Beach area. Meeting in the basement of the Hotel Laguna in 1954, prominent South County leaders formed Laguna Beach Community Hospital, Inc. Among the founding board members were LeRoy Childs, owner of the Pottery Shack, Myford Irvine, president of the Irvine Company, John Weld, publisher of the News Post, the local realtor Peggy Taylor, Kramer Francis, Melvin Harbert, Harry Kenniwell, H. W. Planalp, and Josephine Tice. Cora Barr, and Frederick Jessen were among the fervent hospital supporters. To kick off fundraising for the project, Cora regularly served Sunday afternoon dinners to scores of local residents out of the small galley kitchen of her cottage (where Eric Jessen lives now). Just one of many fundraisers was a production of “Hospital Fund Frantics” in the South Laguna Fire Station Hall in November 1956. Their goal was to raise $500, with a minimum donation of one dollar to attend one of four performances.  

Drawing of the first 78-bed South Coast Community Hospital.
Honeycomb Canyon was graded to create the site for the hospital. First American Title Historic Photo Collection
Fire Chief Joe Fletcher, Grady Crowley, Harold Edwards, George Olinger, Connie Wells, Raul Ridge, James Kauer, Maurice LaVigne at the Frantics fundraiser for the hospital. Note the local business supporters listed on the backdrop. November 13-17, 1956. Submitted photo

In July 1957, a matching funds offer came from the state and federal authorities. Government funds would contribute $678,000, provided that the community raised $640,000! The fundraising was completed in four months. 

A 22-acre site in the middle of the South Laguna Village, a deep arroyo called Honeycomb Canyon, was purchased with a donation of $60,000 from Myford Irvine, who also contributed $55,000 for the grading of the site. Local historian Karen Turnbull describes the area as a mini-Grand Canyon, “So beautiful. We were sad to see it filled in. It took them months of grading to make it a building site.” 

In June of 1959, the 74-bed South Coast Community Hospital was dedicated, with 3,000 area residents in attendance to celebrate. 

Prayer at the groundbreaking for the grading. Submitted photo

Citizens continued to work tirelessly to support the hospital—many of these supporters were listed on a plaque in the hospital lobby. This was truly a community hospital, created and supported by the local residents and businesses.

Subsequently, a series of expansion projects enlarged the medical center facility—by 1973 the facility had grown to 268 beds, the tower had been added, as well as an emergency wing, doctor’s office building and parking structure. Periodically though, hospital administrators would warn that the hospital was struggling financially. They would come up with proposals to add facilities—like the Physician’s Center West building near the lower parking lot. Hospital officials argued that building was needed to attract more doctors to send their patients to the hospital. It was built in 1986. Next they proposed a Cancer Center to be constructed south of the parking garage. These buildings impacted the neighboring residents, but they were overwhelmingly approved in response to community support for the hospital’s mission and the health needs of Laguna’s residents. The hospital Foundation collected funds, but the Cancer Center was never constructed.

In 1997 the whole hospital was turned over to Adventist Health via an “Affiliation Agreement.” “As an affiliate of Adventist Health, South Coast will retain control of hospital operations, officials said,” reported in the Los Angeles Times March 1, 1997. Yet that is not what happened. Was the hospital given to Adventist? If they paid for it where did the money go? We don’t know how suddenly our community hospital created from community donations became part of an outside corporate entity. 

In 2006 the independent board of the Foundation was replaced with South Coast Medical Center as the sole member of the Foundation and in 2008 the Foundation was merged with South Coast Medical Center. This meant that the Foundation’s funds/donations were absorbed into SCMC, and ultimately Adventist. In 2009 Adventist sold the facility to Mission Hospital for $35,700,000. Adventist ended up with most of the Foundation money that had been donated by Laguna Beach residents for the hospital and the cancer center, 

In 2014 Mission Hospital embarked on a 2-year $15 million earthquake retrofitting project intended to meet state requirements through 2030. In 2019 the hospital completed the new Bill and Sue Gross improvements to the Emergency Department, funded by their $10 million donation. Both these projects assured the community that Mission was committed to continued stable operation of our local hospital.

In 2021 Mission Hospital’s chief executive Seth Teigen announced the hospital’s affiliation with the Providence network of Catholic hospitals.

Now Teigen has written that an evaluation of services at our hospital is in progress. Residents have reported that their doctors in the buildings on the hospital campus have mentioned that they have been told to seek office space elsewhere. Outpatient laboratory services have been terminated and the gastro-intestinal unit has been relocated to the Mission Viejo campus. According to Mayor Bob Whalen’s quote in Erika Ritchie’s OC Register article, 4-18-23, there is a $300 million price tag on the state-required earthquake retrofit on the hospital tower.

Another crisis point appears to be looming as Providence continues its evaluation.

The state Attorney General’s report written when the sale to Mission was being evaluated, is as true today as in 2009—or 1954.  

“As previously discussed, SCMC’s emergency department is needed for patient access and is considered very important by area physicians, the City of Laguna Beach and management of the Orange County Emergency Medical Services Agency, all of whom emphasized that travel times to other hospitals’ EDs could equal 30-40 minutes from remote portions of the SCMC’s service area and that this could pose a safety risk. Access would be particularly difficult when summer visitors increase the population and make traffic patterns much more difficult.”

Despite this mixed history of a facility that transitioned from a community hospital to one whose fate is being determined by outside administrators in a national chain of health care facilities, we care as much now as “The Frantics” did in the 1950s. Imagine—no community hospital. No ER. No hospital for basic care. Doctors no longer near We must be active participants in the process that’s now unfolding, assuring our local hospital continues to serve community needs. Once again the time is now. 

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1 COMMENT

  1. Ann,
    Thank your for the extensive background information on the development and evolution of our local hospital. I remember some of the changes and progress that occurred in the 70’s. I know there is much interest in what the future holds for the hospital owners and the community.

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