By Cindy Mindell
HARTFORD – This year marks the 90th anniversary of the dedication of Mount Sinai Hospital in Hartford. Founded to serve the local Jewish physicians and patients, Mount Sinai followed the examples of Hartford Hospital, established by the Protestant community, and Saint Francis Hospital, supported by the local Catholic population.
The respective histories of the three institutions are intertwined over the decades, to greater and lesser degrees depending on demographic, societal, and economic trends. The individual story of Mount Sinai also reflects the arc of the local Jewish community – its growth, professional endeavors, and migration – as well as its values and leadership.
Some may have feared the demise of Mount Sinai Hospital when it merged with Saint Francis Hospital and Medical Center in 1995. But the old hands and the new brass agreed on one essential idea: the Mount Sinai name – and legacy —should somehow be preserved.
At a 2009 program on Mount Sinai Hospital hosted by the Jewish Historical Society of Greater Hartford, West Hartford resident Dr. Leon Chameides traced the institution’s history, research that informs this article.
The idea to establish a Jewish hospital in Hartford first came up in 1916, and ripened over the next two years as a group of Jewish physicians and community leaders met to discuss logistics. On Feb. 7, 1918, Moses Goldenthal summed up the discussion in a letter to Benjamin L. Haas, president of the United Jewish Charities, the forerunner of the Jewish Federation. “There is something lacking in Hartford to supply the needs and gladden the hearts of its Jews,” Goldenthal wrote – namely, a Jewish hospital.
There were not enough hospitals in Hartford, the group concluded, an assertion that was underlined during the great influenza epidemic of 1917, when many patients had to be hospitalized in tents in Keney Park. In addition, the three hospitals that existed at the time – Hartford, Saint Francis, and Municipal – were prejudiced against Jewish patients, nurses, and physicians.
“Jews were excluded from many activities and educational opportunities,” says Chameides. “Even if not excluded, they felt uncomfortable in non-Jewish surroundings, without access to kosher foods and, most importantly, without access to their own physicians, who were excluded from hospital staffs and internship programs.”
Chameides would go on to become founding chair of pediatric cardiology at Hartford Hospital, a position he held for 30 years.
“I remember that, shortly after I became director of pediatrics at Hartford Hospital in 1971, a senior physician came to see me and asked me for forgiveness,” he recalls. “Surprised, I asked him why he was asking me for forgiveness and he told me that he had been a member of the executive committee of Hartford Hospital for many years and was one of the people who kept Jews off the staff. After seeing the changes I had brought about, he realized how wrong he had been. I also recall older physicians coming to see me with tears in their eyes telling me that they never thought they would see the day when a Jew would become a department director at Hartford Hospital.”
On March 16, 1918, a committee filed a Certificate of Incorporation for the establishment of the Abraham Jacobi Hospital in Hartford. On April 9, 1922, the board purchased the Brainard Mansion at 119 Capitol Ave. for $62,500 and changed the name of the facility to Mount Sinai Hospital, launching a Ladies Auxiliary and a fund drive to support “A Hospital for All.” The building opened on May 6, 1923 with 75 beds and two patients. At that time, the Jewish population of Hartford numbered some 20,000, with 22 Jewish practicing physicians.
Two years later, Mount Sinai expanded across the street with a school of nursing and a dormitory, which operated until 1934. In 1941, the hospital purchased the building and property of the former Hebrew Women’s Home for Children on Blue Hills and Tower Avenues. The cornerstone for a new hospital was laid on Nov. 18, 1948 and a year later, Mount Sinai gave a parcel of land on Tower Avenue for the relocation of the Hebrew Home for the Aged. The new hospital opened on March 20, 1950, with 115 beds, but was not a truly modern facility, according to Chameides.
“New therapies and diagnostic techniques were discovered, specialization was starting, hospitals became educational institutions, there was a population explosion, salaries rose rapidly, and insurance coverage began, but Mount Sinai had made no provisions for these changes,” he says. “Despite having a new building, the hospital found itself short of space, with a growing annual deficit, aggravated by the recent expansions at both Hartford and Saint Francis Hospitals. By 1954, it was recognized that the hospital needed to expand to 200 beds and needed more laboratory and X-ray space.”
An addition was completed in 1960, increasing the bed count to 189, and was nearly 100 percent occupied within a week. Construction costs of $1.96 million were covered by various grants and a fund drive that netted $1.9 million, largely from non-Jewish sources. With this community response, and the fact that 50 percent of Mount Sinai patients were not Jewish, hospital leaders recognized that the facility had become a community asset, Chameides says.
“This was especially important because members of the Jewish community were beginning in the 1950s to question why it should bear the burden of ‘A Hospital for All,’” he says. “In the meantime, the other hospitals had also expanded and now had many specialties and subspecialties that Mount Sinai did not have.”
The Jewish hospital was affected by demographic and societal changes as well. By the mid-‘60s, the small number of beds at Mount Sinai required that patients be admitted to other hospitals, whose staffs now included Jewish physicians. As a result, Chameides says, few physicians had their primary loyalty to Mount Sinai. There was a steady migration of Jews from Hartford’s North End to the suburbs; the city became the second poorest in the nation. Mount Sinai continued to raise funds and expand to meet the medical needs of the community, but was besieged by debt, rising costs, and changes in insurance-reimbursement policies. When the new facility opened in 1973, the hospital was $10 million in debt. Throughout the ‘80s, Mount Sinai sacrificed financial well-being to uphold its mission as “A Hospital for All,” serving a largely uninsured and under-insured population, and running an annual deficit of some $1.5 million.
In December 1989, the boards of Mount Sinai Hospital and Saint Francis Medical Center announced an affiliation, the first recorded instance of collaboration between a Catholic hospital and a Jewish-sponsored hospital. For five years, the two facilities maintained separate licenses and medical staffs, but shared common management and certain services.
“Mount Sinai was a viable hospital with a net worth that was considerable and a future that, in the short run, was something to be optimistic about,” says Henry S. Scherer, Jr., long active on the boards of Mount Sinai and Saint Francis. “But the long run, it was clear to us, was pretty dim because of a variety of changes at the state and federal levels which have accelerated since then.”
In 1995, Saint Francis and Mount Sinai entered into a formal corporate merger, establishing the Saint Francis Care system with separate campuses on Woodland Street and Blue Hills Ave.
Scherer has long been involved in the Hartford area healthcare community. He has served on the board of the Hebrew Home, and twice chaired the Mount Sinai board, both when it was an independent entity and during its pre-merger affiliation with Saint Francis. He chaired the Saint Francis Hospital and Medical Center Joint Conference Committee, and now chairs the Saint Francis Care board Quality Committee. He is a corporator of Hartford Hospital and chair of the Mount Sinai Foundation board.
Ninety years after the founding of Hartford’s Jewish hospital, references and reminders of its legacy remain, “both in name and in concrete,” Scherer says, noting that it is important to remind the community “that there once was a Mount Sinai Hospital that made a contribution to the community. Fortunately, current Saint Francis CEO Christopher Dadlez has been extraordinarily desirous of preserving the Mount Sinai name and reputation and has acted on that in a variety of ways.”
The most notable example, Scherer says, is the 2010 renaming of the Rehabilitation Hospital of Connecticut, a Saint Francis Care provider, to Mount Sinai Rehabilitation Hospital. The 60-bed facility is the only acute rehabilitation hospital in the state, with both inpatient and outpatient treatment centers. In addition, a $3 million gift from the Mount Sinai Foundation resulted in the cancer center being named the Saint Francis/Mount Sinai Regional Cancer Center, dedicated in 1993.
Photos and plaques tracing Mount Sinai’s history are displayed throughout the Connecticut Sinai Building off Tower Avenue, including a history wall in the renovated cafeteria with photos of the Hartford Jewish community from the 1920s through the ‘50s. Several wings of the rehab hospital are named for members of the Jewish community who helped in founding and supporting Mount Sinai; the old wound-care center contains a cornerstone with Hebrew and secular years of the building’s construction: 5707/1946.
“Some of Mount Sinai’s mission has become obsolete,” Scherer says. “Discrimination against Catholics and Jews, at least in the healthcare profession, has gone away, so that the need for a hospital for Jewish or Catholic or Protestant doctors to practice has evaporated.”
The second prong of that mission – to take care of people who cannot otherwise take care of themselves – is still relevant, Scherer says. The rehabilitation hospital houses units that treat alcohol and drug abuse, long term acute care, dialysis, and wound care. In addition, gifts from the Mandell Family Foundation established the Mandell Multiple Sclerosis Center in 2008 and expanded it in 2011.
“I think it’s very important for the Greater Hartford community to know that the Jewish population has played its role and done its share and taken responsibility in the community,” says Scherer. “Like the groups of excellent Americans who organized Hartford Hospital in the middle of the nineteenth century and Saint Francis in the 1890s, both of which have served the community long and well, Mount Sinai has also fulfilled its mission – to play a good role in the community.”
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