Red Deer Regional Hospital under construction, 1980. (Contributed photo)

Red Deer Regional Hospital under construction, 1980. (Contributed photo)

Michael Dawe: It’s been 40 years since Red Deer hospital opened

Perhaps because of all the turmoil in the past two years, one significant milestone, which has been largely overlooked, is that 2021 marked the 40th anniversary of the official opening of the Red Deer Regional Hospital Centre.

It would be hard to understate the importance of the new regional health care centre to the community. Ever since it had first opened in April 1904, the Red Deer hospital has been the health care centre not only for Red Deer, but also for a broad geographical area across Central Alberta.

While the hospital served a great many people outside the town limits of Red Deer, there was not commensurate financial support. Patients were supposed to pay their own hospital bills, but the reality was that many could not afford the costs of falling ill. Under the rules of the time, their home municipalities were supposed to eventually cover any arrears in payments, especially if those owing the debts did not have the means to pay them. However, several of those municipalities found many ways to avoid assuming those obligations.

The result was that the hospital went bankrupt after the First World War. An attempt was made to create a regional, tax-supported, hospital district, but the proposal was defeated in a plebiscite, largely because of opposing votes cast in rural areas.

Finally, in 1923, the Red Deer Municipal Hospital District was formed with boundaries limited to the City of Red Deer. City taxpayers were given preferential treatment on hospital rates. Non-residents were required to pay much higher hospital fees.

In 1949, with all of Central Alberta experiencing dramatic growth and change, several rural communities voted to join the Red Deer Municipal Hospital District. The broader tax base allowed the construction of additions to the hospital. Nevertheless, Red Deer and area were growing so rapidly that the hospital was never big enough to meet the soaring demands for health services. At times, occupancy rates hit an astonishing 140 per cent.

During the 1970s, steps were finally taken to formally designate the Red Deer hospital as a regional health care centre. While the Red Deer College offered a site for a new regional hospital complex, the provincial government decided to build a new facility onto the existing hospital building.

Work on the new complex began in 1978. A two-block row of old houses on 43rd Street was demolished to make room for the project. The north facing slope of the Hospital Hill was excavated and reshaped. When the complex was finally completed in 1981, the new structure was six-stories high, encompassing 66,785 square metres with a large new emergency department, an 18-bed intensive care unit, and 180 new acute care beds.

Not only did Red Deer now have almost 400 acute care beds, it was also now able to provide a range of new specialized and advanced health services, as well as regional primary and secondary health care.

The enormity of its importance to the community was reflected during the official opening ceremonies on February 19, 1981. The Red Deer Advocate seemed to sum the feelings up in its headline Hospital Opening “Dream Come True”. After three years of construction, three strikes and a great many other challenges, the new facility, which was more than five times the size of the existing hospital, was finally completed.

Not only was it now completed, but during the ceremonies, building committee chair Walter Abbott presented then premier, Peter Lougheed, with an oversized cheque in the amount of $5,000. That symbolized the fact that the multi-million-dollar project had been completed slightly under budget.

Many changes have continued to happen in the subsequent four decades. The third floor was eventually completed, the Urgent Care tower was added, and the South Wing replaced much of the remaining old structure. The Dr. Richard Parsons Auxiliary Hospital made way for the new Central Alberta Cancer Centre.

Unfortunately, one thing which hasn’t changed is that the additions to the facility have not kept pace with the demands placed upon it, particularly when one remembers that Red Deer’s population was 45,000 in 1981 and is now 100,000. Moreover, the size of the region is now much larger than it was 40 years ago.

Recent indications are that the provincial government is now going to proceed with at least some of the necessary additions and enhancements to the Regional Hospital Centre.

Red Deer historian Michael Dawe’s column appears Wednesdays.