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Home is Where the Health Is

Cape Cod Healthcare: from dire beginnings to an essential present.

On October 2nd, 1920, Cape Cod Hospital first opened its doors to the public. According to hospital archives, “Members of the board greeted visitors; nurses showed them around. A newspaper account perhaps expressed the feelings of many: ‘In the clear sunlight of Saturday afternoon, looking out from the sun parlor on the south over beautiful gardens with the blue water of the bay in the distance, it was almost easy to envy the convalescent patient who may have the privilege of sitting there for hours and enjoying the view. Surely if fresh air and sunshine are healing properties, the patients at Cape Cod Hospital should receive a new lease on life.’” Miss Nellie E. Woodworth served as the hospital’s first superintendent, and she opened the hospital on October 4th with 14 beds and two cribs in a converted three-story wooden home. The three original nurses—Mary E. Woodworth, Grace MacKenzie, and Lillian Hudnut—lived on the third floor. “On Monday, October 4th, William O. Crocker of Osterville was admitted as the hospital’s first patient,” the archives note. “Badly crippled from rheumatism, Mr. Crocker was a patient of Dr. W. D. Kinney. The hospital was officially open.” Mr. Crocker’s admission also marked the official start of Cape Cod Healthcare, which reached the milestone of a century of service to the community in 2020. The hospital remains the centerpiece of the organization today. It has grown along with the population, evolved to changing times, and endured, even as the city of Hyannis has built up around its once rural setting. 

Cape Cod Hospital arose from necessity, for Boston was simply too far away for the survival of a patient in critical condition. Trustee Joshua Nickerson, who joined the board in 1923 and served for 50 years, recalls the conditions that led to the hospital’s founding. In a 1987 article for the Pops By The Sea fundraiser, Nickerson documented two childhood memories that inspired his interest in healthcare. The first involved a brakeman named Billy Wire who worked the train between Boston and Chatham. Wire was a childhood hero of Nickerson’s because he allowed the boy to ride up in the cab of the locomotive and to operate the handle that reversed the train’s direction at the turnstile. Nickerson wrote, “One day Billy Wire fell in between two moving cars, and his legs were crushed by the wheels. A special train was rigged to get him to Boston so he could get proper medical care. He died in Middleboro.” The trustee’s second memory has a happier ending, as he recalls the time his mother’s sister Bessie fell ill with an abdominal tumor. A doctor and nurse came down from Boston and removed the cancer by operating on the dining room table in Nickerson’s father’s house. “They went back on the afternoon train,” says Nickerson, “and my aunt Bessie lived for another 50 years. That’s what it was like before we got a hospital.”

Fortunately for future generations of Cape Codders, the conventions of health care began to change on April 2, 1919, when a Centerville banker named Charles Ayling put forth the proposal for a hospital. Hospital archives indicate that his inspiration also involved train travel to Boston. Following a weekend on the Cape in 1918, Ayling was returning to the city for work, relaxing in the “smoker,” when he witnessed a grotesque and piteous situation. Two men were suffering in obvious pain in the baggage car, their arms and legs wrapped in heavy, bloody bandages. When Ayling inquired, the conductor explained that they were two Belgian sailors whose ship had run aground off the Cape. It was February, the seas were rough, and when they clung to the mast for survival, their hands had frozen in place. Their feet had also frozen to the deck. Amputation and the rapid application of bandaging was the only way for rescuers to bring them to shore alive. By the time they reached land, they both had surely lost vast amounts of blood. The story shocked Ayling because he couldn’t believe that the closest available hospital for the sailors was all the way up in Boston; what bothered him even more was the fact that the conductor and most other passengers seemed to take the situation for granted. This was the moment that he decided that Cape Cod needed its own hospital. 14 months later, he would present his proposal to the Hyannis Board of Trade. 



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