Walter Reed's hospital

Monday, September 19, 2011
Maj. Walter Reed

In August 2011 the Walter Reed Army Medical Center is the subject of much news coverage. After more than 100 years, this venerable institution, hospital of choice for the President and our elected officials in Washington, healing place for our wounded military men and women since the Spanish American War, and the laboratory of so much military related medical research, is to be closed in favor of other medical facilities in the Washington area.

Maj. Walter Reed, the fellow who was honored in the naming of this facility (and is remembered with the naming of one of the new facilities that replaces the original Walter Reed Hospital) had an illustrious medical career.

Reed was born in Virginia in 1851. He missed fighting in the Civil War, because of his age, and was able to enroll in the University of Virginia School of Medicine immediately after the war, graduating, at age 17 in 1869 (he is still the youngest person to have received an MD from the University of Virginia Medical School).

For a few years, Reed worked in various hospitals in the New York City area, but in 1876, following his marriage, he and his bride headed west, where Reed served as a doctor in a number of frontier camps, handling the medical needs of Western Indians (including the great Apache Chief, Geronimo), first as a civilian, later as an Army Doctor. One of his western assignments was at Fort Omaha, where his son was born.

By 1893, Reed had completed Army courses in bacteriology and pathology and was teaching at the Army Medical School in Washington D.C. It was here that he became interested in the causes and transmission of various diseases, especially yellow fever. In 1899 and again in 1900, during and after the Spanish American War, Reed visited various Army encampments in Cuba to find answers to the problem of Yellow Fever. During that war thousands of our troops were felled by Yellow Fever and Malaria, far more than were taken by Spanish bullets.

The 1890s were a time of great advancement in the field of medicine, due in large part because of the acceptance of Louis Pasteur's theory of disease being caused by germs. However, in 1899 it was widely accepted that yellow fever was spread by clothing and bedding soiled by the body fluids of yellow fever sufferers.

Through some highly risky research, by some of Reed's own staff, who allowed themselves to be infected by the live virus, Reed proved that the disease spread by the bite of a mosquito. This research led to the draining of the breeding areas of mosquitos, drastically cutting the rate of casualties from yellow fever.

One of the first great results of this research was the building of the Panama Canal, by the Americans, spearheaded by President Theodore Roosevelt, in 1901. (Roosevelt pushed for the canal in his first days as president. He was dismayed that a battleship had taken 67 days from San Francisco to Havana, around South America, during the Spanish American War -- a trip, which by the Panama Canal would take only 21 days.)

In the 1860s, the French had successfully completed the Suez Canal, which joined the Mediterranean with the Red Sea, allowing sea navigation between Europe and India, without going around Africa. Emboldened by this success, the French began a similar venture in Central America, which would allow ocean navigation between the Atlantic and the Pacific, without going around South America.

The French Panama Canal project in the 1870s was a disaster, and was abandoned, largely because of the huge death toll of workers (some 22,000) from yellow fever.

When the Americans took over the Panama Canal project, their first priorities were improved sanitation, elimination of disease carrying mosquitos (by draining stagnant water sources), fumigation, and protecting people by using mosquito nets and screens in homes.

Walter Reed became quite famous as the man who conquered yellow fever, allowing the Panama Canal to be completed. Reed steadfastly maintained privately and publicly that others had come up with the theory that mosquitos spread yellow fever, and he had just done the laboratory work to prove that theory. Nevertheless, in the last years of his life, Reed was in great demand to lecture at prestigious medical seminars around the country, to explain the hitherto mysteries of yellow fever. Today the Canal Region is considered free of yellow fever.

Walter Reed died in November 1901 of a ruptured appendix and was buried in Arlington Cemetery in Washington. He was 51 years old. He was honored in his lifetime, and since. The giant Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington was named in his honor, and there are also a number of medical schools, public schools and hospitals named after him. In 1940 he was honored with a U.S. Postage stamp, and in 1938 a much acclaimed film, "Yellow Jack," starring Louis Stone, opened in Hollywood. The film pretty much tells Reed's story accurately.

Reed's great legacy, the Walter Reed Army Medical Center, grew over the last 100 years, from its opening in 1909. At its opening the Hospital could accommodate 80 patients. Over the years it grew to more than 5,500 rooms for patients, in multiple buildings covering 130 acres.

Presidents, representatives and senators have received their health care at Walter Reed. President Eisenhower had a suite of rooms at the hospital, and it was here he signed the bill, which created the Interstate Highway system in the U.S. It was here he died, as did Gen. Douglas McArthur. Gen. Pershing, the hero of World War I, spent his last days in a suite at Walter Reed. His wartime comrades, heads of state from around the world, and ordinary Doughboys gathered at his apartment to pay their respects. General Patton, one of Pershing's "boys" from World War I stopped by in 1944 on his way to join the fight in Europe. Before he left he knelt on the floor and asked for Pershing's blessing.

Over the years Walter Reed Army Medical Center grew in prestige. Its medical research facilities were considered the best in the world. It was the teaching hospital for the Army's Nurse Corps, and it became widely acclaimed for the medical advancements it achieved in the field of battle ground medicine, especially in the area of prostheses for wounded military personnel, which of course spread immediately to civilians as well.

The medical facility continued to grow into the new century -- too fast. By 2007, Walter Reed Medical Center was doing the big things right, turning out fine doctors and nurses, staying attuned to the cutting edge of technology to help the returning soldiers recover from their wounds, but it was ignoring the little things -- the way they treated veterans and their families -- housing them in roach-infested barracks where the heat and cooling did not work well, then ignoring their complaints. It all came to a head with a series of articles in the Washington Post, which pointed out these flaws, cases of mismanagement, unqualified staff, and unnecessary paper work for outpatients. It was bureaucracy gone amok.

All this led to an major investigation and analysis of the veteran's healthcare system, and resulted in an overhaul by the VA of all its medical facilities, to ensure that all healthcare standards are being met.

The closure of Walter Reed Army Medical Center was originally proposed in 1995, and was finally accomplished in 2011. The goal in closure was to improve medical care for its patients, and to save money. The patients have been transferred to a new Walter Reed Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland, and several other facilities in the Washington area, where they will presumably receive better care.

Whether the closure will save money is an open question.

Accountants say that closure of the Medical Center will save $172 million a year. However, the estimated costs to tear down the facility and build new has tripled, from $900 million in 2005 to $2.78 billion in 2011.

What the final result and just how much it will all cost will be is anybody's guess. We'll have to wait and see.

Source: Walter Reed Army bio; WRAMC web site; When will closing WRAMC pay off?

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