July 4, 2008

VBMC Celebrates 85 Years: Former Mercy Hospital Has Grown With the City

By Jazmine Ulloa, The Brownsville Herald, Texas

Jul. 4--Valley Baptist Medical Center-Brownsville is filled with history.

Teresita Guevara began working there in 1955 as a laboratory clerk, where state Sen. Eddie Lucio Jr. would later have his bones "put back together like a puzzle" after a childhood accident and where doctors like Lorenzo Pelly have become heroes to families they have served for years.

Under overcast skies Thursday, the medical center paid tribute to the experiences of such people as it celebrated 85 years of service to the Rio Grande Valley.

"People are at the heart of this hospital," Leslie Bingham, the medical center's senior vice president and CEO, said at the anniversary ceremony. "What the hospital means to people is something that is worth celebrating."

The center first opened its doors as Mercy Hospital in 1923, built with donations from Brownsville residents. Originally a three-story building with 50 beds, it was the first hospital in the city -- and in the Valley.

Agnus O. Browne was 7 years old when her grandmother, Agnus A. Browne, was helping the Sisters of Mercy raise money to build the hospital.

Browne would take bumpy rides with her grandmother over dirt and gravel roads to various cities in the Valley to collect contributions from residents.

"In those days, it was an expedition almost," Browne said. "We traveled through wild country."

The sisters ran the hospital for 50 years before selling it to a Houston-based corporation in 1973, which re-named it Brownsville Medical Center. Browne would later serve as member of the center's board.

The hospital changed ownership again in 2004, when it was acquired by the Valley Baptist Health System and dubbed Valley Baptist Medical Center-Brownsville. The facility has grown to hold 230 beds and employ more than 800 local residents.

Valley Baptist Health's first step was to dismantle all the decaying information technology and replace it with state-of-the-art equipment, said Pelly, the hospital's director of performance and improvement.

With the technology, doctors can now access patient information through wireless Internet anywhere in the world, he said.

The hospital has also expanded, opening the first and only inpatient behavioral health service in the area last year. A new ambulatory surgery center and a $1.6 million magnetic resonance imaging center were also added this year.

"But the most dramatic change is in the way we care for people," Pelly said. "We have improved in every aspect, and we have the mentality of 'We can do it, we can do it right.'"

Despite the hospital's growth, some patients, like Lucio, still call it by its original name.

At Thursday's ceremony, Lucio shared a memory he had of visiting the hospital as a child, when his foot got caught in the doors of a school bus. The bus dragged and ran him over, leaving him with a shattered pelvis.

Doctors fixed him up so well he later won a rock-and-roll dance contest in Weslaco, he laughed.

The hospital has been a part of the community in other ways. Guevara recalls Easter egg hunts with the founding sisters in the hospital's early days.

Recollections of the facility went beyond the building's growth and technology.

"You may have all the brick and mortar you want," Cameron County Judge Carlos Cascos said. "But if you don't have the people you have an empty building."

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