August 2011

A Long and Healthy Life

Cape Cod Life  /  August 2011 / ,

Writer: Lindsay Oliver / Photographer:

How Cape Cod Hospital evolved from a house with an “Accident Room” to the state-of-the-art medical powerhouse it is today

Cape Cod Hospital, 1920

The original Cape Cod Hospital, prior to any renovations, was more of a house than a medical facility in 1920.

One of the great benefits of living on or visiting Cape Cod is the excellent medical care available here. Cape Cod Hospital, located in Hyannis, has one of the busiest Emergency Centers in Massachusetts year-round and is the busiest hospital in the state during summer months. This not-for-profit medical center sees over 85,000 patients annually with more than 1,700 employees and 300 physicians on staff.

Charles Lincoln Ayling, a successful and philanthropic businessman from nearby Centerville, founded and served as the first president of the hospital. Van Northcross, regional marketing director of Cape Cod Hospital, explains what motivated Ayling to found the institution.

Cape Cod Hospital, 2011

Cape Cod Hospital, 2011

“There was a famous winter storm in 1919 off the coast of Harwich that resulted in some badly injured sailors who were put on a train to go to the nearest medical facility, which was in Boston,” says Northcross. “Ayling got on the train in Hyannis to make a business trip to Boston, saw these sailors, and decided right then and there it was time the Cape had its own hospital.”

In 1920, Ayling met with a few members of the Hyannis Board of Trade, and together they put up $35,000 to buy a house, previously the summer residence of Dr. Edward F. Gleason, to serve as the hospital site. The three-story wooden frame building contained 14 beds and two cribs. In 1920, Cape Cod Hospital opened its doors.

The new hospital admitted 130 patients and 23 accident cases between July and October in 1922. Northcross explains, “In those days, they didn’t have docs who are specialized like they are now… and we didn’t have an emergency room. They called it the ‘Accident Room.’” The board soon voted to construct the Charles L. Ayling Wing, which opened in 1924, bringing the total number of beds in the hospital to 45.

Cape Cod Hospital, 1979

Cape Cod Hospital expanded its premises quite a bit after World War II.

After World War II, the hospital underwent a major transformation. Northcross says that in 1950, Cape Cod Hospital opened its iconic main building, which contained the first real emergency room. The Ayling Wing was retained and remodeled, and the original hospital building was torn down. Normal capacity increased to 105 beds. The hospital now had three operating rooms, three labor rooms, a complete outpatient department, four X-ray machines, and a pharmacy.

Every year, the hospital saw a significantly increased number of admitted patients. By 1960, a $1.6 million addition was in the works; the hospital also received a grant of $350,000 at the time under the Hill-Burton Act, a U.S. federal law passed in 1946 designed to provide federal grants and guaranteed loans to improve the physical capital of the nation’s hospital system. In 1963, the new South Wing, which included eight intensive care unit beds, opened as well.

Cape Cod Hospital continued to grow in response to the needs of the area. In 1969, a Coronary Care Unit opened to mark the 50th anniversary of the hospital. The Whitcomb Pavilion opened in 1971, with a new addition in 1978. The Radiation Therapy Center opened in the spring of 1980.

Mary Clancy, a former staff nurse at the hospital between the years 1968 and 1994, remembers that even as the hospital was growing, the hospital staff was notably smaller than it is today. “In the daytime, in the emergency room, we would have two or three nurses working,” she says. “We didn’t even have anyone serving a night shift. We had to wait for the night supervisor to come in and take our place.”

The current emergency department of Cape Cod Hospital opened in the fall of 1993. The number of E.R. visits in that year rose to around 52,000. This year, in 2011, E.R. visits will top 90,000. Northcross discusses the mammoth increase in traffic at the hospital these days: “Between 1993 to 2007, in the current emergency room that opened in the fall of 1993, we saw 1,000,000 patients,” says Northcross. “We’re the busiest hospital in Massachusetts in warm weather months, and that includes Mass General and Boston City. This year, we’ll top 90,000 emergency room visits.”

Cape Cod Hospital, 2011

The 2011 Cape Cod Hospital, home to modern architecture, and large glass windows, and a brick exterior.

Corinne Cowen, who was hired in 1951 as the first evening staff nurse at the hospital and worked as an E.R. nurse from 1961 until 1984, says “We have an excellent E.R. now, better than anything we’ve had previously. They’ve refined it,” says Cowen.

According to, Cape Cod Hospital has been named one of America’s “Top 100 Hospitals” five times in a nationwide, annual survey conducted by Solucient, an Illinois-based health care information company. The hospital offers impressive cardiovascular services, including four interventional cardiology suites for emergency and elective angioplasty, electrophysiology, and cardiac rehabilitation.

The O’Keefe Surgical Pavilion features inpatient and outpatient surgery in 14 operating rooms, including two cardiac surgery rooms. The Davenport-Mugar Cancer Center provides cancer services in medical oncology and radiation therapy. Cape Cod Hospital also offers patients excellent imaging services, including X-ray, MRI, CT, PET, ultrasound, and nuclear medicine. In addition to seeing more than 85,000 patients annually, the hospital performs more than two million laboratory tests and 12,500 surgical procedures a year. There are 1,000 births at Cape Cod Hospital every year.

Cape Cod residents can thank the hospital’s founder Charles Lincoln Ayling, whose portrait hangs in the hospital today, for today’s first-rate medical care. Van Northcross explains that the philanthropy of the Cape community continues to play a crucial role in the development of Cape Cod Hospital saying, “Every single expansion project that we’ve undertaken has been dependent upon the generosity of the community we serve.”

For information on Cape Cod Hospital, go to

Lindsay Oliver is a freelance writer and a former intern at Cape Cod Life Publications.

Lindsay Oliver

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