Author’s note: This is the second part of a multi-part series about the origins of Central Peninsula Hospital, which celebrates its 50th anniversary in June. In Part 1, a Kenai-centric hospital association board was elected in 1962, causing immediate reactions, particularly from Soldotna members of the association.
CUTTING IT CLOSE, AGAIN
On Jan. 25, 1968, Dr. Paul Isaak was at the controls of his single-engine Cessna 180, winging southeastward over a very familiar route between Soldotna and Resurrection Bay. His passengers were Soldotna dentist Calvin Fair and his pregnant wife Jane, on their way to Seward General Hospital where in 1961 Jane had given birth to the Fairs’ daughter.
In 1961, the central Kenai had had no hospital. The same was true in 1968, despite earnest efforts to create one, so prospective mothers were left to either give birth at home or in a local clinic or travel to Seward or Anchorage for a hospital delivery.
Not far from upper Binkley Street in Soldotna in 1968 stood the unfinished shell of what central peninsula residents still hoped would one day become a hospital. Construction had begun in September 1966, and — after work stoppages, threatened foreclosures, fundraising problems and, finally, government intervention — the facility would require five more years before it welcomed its first patient in 1971.
So Dr. Isaak was flying the Fairs to Seward, performing an aerial journey he would make hundreds of times during his career. But as they neared the end of the narrow, mountain-lined Resurrection River drainage, the winter weather deteriorated rapidly. Isaak was forced to reverse course and return home.
Back in Soldotna, Dr. Fair became the pilot. Climbing in behind the wheel of his family’s blue Ford stationwagon, he was joined by his wife and Dr. Isaak, and began the long drive down the icy strip of asphalt toward Seward.
“About seven or eight miles out of Seward,” Isaak wrote later, “[Dr. Fair’s wife] decided she was going to have that baby, and indeed did have it in the back seat of the car. Fortunately, I had some of the bare necessities with me to manage the delivery … even though it wasn’t the most ideal situation. Everything turned out fine for mother and baby, and they spent several days in the hospital after that experience.”
Such make-do incidents were commonplace for Dr. Isaak and his medical partner and fellow pilot, Dr. Elmer Gaede. Throughout the 1960s, physicians in Soldotna and Kenai routinely found it necessary to perform medical procedures for which their own facilities were at best ill equipped.
In a letter from December 1963, Isaak wrote, “The inconveniences of being without a hospital for this many years, and the risks we incur almost daily by trying to do the best we can … are sometimes overwhelming…. I many times feel like giving up all of it and going into a more desirable situation.”
But he never did. To varying degrees, he would keep active in the hospital project until the very end, regardless how embattled he felt along the way.
Isaak had been involved since the beginning. In fact, in December 1960 he had reported to the Soldotna Chamber of Commerce that a “movement” was afoot to create a Kenai-Soldotna hospital, and in 1961 he had helped arrange the very first public meeting to promote the idea.
Prior to that meeting, health care on the central Kenai had been decidedly hit-and-miss.
For much of the 1950s, Dr. Joseph Deisher of Seward drove each week to Kenai to provide basic medical services for a day or two in an office in the old Harborview Hotel on the bluff above the mouth of the Kenai River.
In July 1958, Dr. Marion Goble — a missionary doctor from New Jersey — became the area’s first resident physician when she moved from Kodiak to Kenai with her aviation mechanic husband, Ben, and their daughter Grace. She left Alaska for Minnesota in November 1960 so she could get more medical training and Ben could earn a commercial pilot’s license.
The next physician to set up a full-time medical practice in Kenai was Dr. Allen W. Barr, from Houston, Texas, who opened up shop in March 1963 at the brand-new Kenai Community Clinic and practiced for just over a year before abruptly pulling up stakes for Anchorage, leaving Kenai with a clinic but no doctor.
Soldotna, meanwhile, was more fortunate.
By the time of Goble’s departure in 1960, Dr. Isaak had settled into a Soldotna practice of his own. Isaak, who had begun working in Seward in 1957, had taken flying lessons, purchased a Piper Pacer and was commuting regularly to practice medicine in Soldotna before deciding to make a permanent home there.
In Soldotna in 1959, a group of entrepreneurs had established a local corporation to build their own medical clinic. Initial plans called for the construction of a $45,000 two-story, concrete-block structure, financed by stockholders. The finished clinic cost $60,000 and opened in April 1961, with Dr. Isaak practicing medicine upstairs and Dr. Fair practicing dentistry downstairs.
That summer, Dr. Gaede joined Isaak upstairs, assisted by nurses Elizabeth Meadows and Pat Carruthers, while the downstairs rooms adjacent to Dr. Fair were occupied by Soldotna’s first public library and accountant Ted Gaines.
Almost immediately, though, Isaak began aiming higher. On July 24, in a classroom at the year-old Soldotna School, about 30 interested citizens from local communities met with Isaak, Kenai pharmacist Phil Stetzer and Kenai magistrate Jess Nicholas to discuss the possibility of establishing an area hospital.
That first night, with interest piqued, the group leaped into action, forming an entity called the Central Kenai Peninsula Hospital Association and drawing up articles of incorporation and a set of by-laws. Kenai city attorney Jim Fisher later filed the documents with the state’s Department of Commerce, and by the end of August the CKPHA was official.
Isaak, who seemed nearly always to be in a hurry to get things done, was bothered by the hastiness with which the corporation was thrown together and plans were set in motion. Yet the pace did not slacken.
At an Oct. 5 meeting held at the new Riverside House Restaurant in Soldotna, the following board officers were introduced: the Rev. Dan Harlan (Kenai) as board chairman; the Rev. James Rose (North Kenai) as vice-chair; Raye Mullin (Kenai) as secretary; Virginia Gibbs (Soldotna) as treasurer. Annual membership dues were established at two dollars, board meetings scheduled for the first Thursday of each month, and a general membership meeting slated for the first Monday of each March.
A clippable membership application appeared in the newspaper. Committee members developed fundraising plans, investigated state and federal grant funding, searched for qualified architects, inexpensive properties on which to build and sought experts to provide good advice.
The CKPHA had hit the ground running, but Isaak perceived a problem. Although he was not a member of the board, believed that — good advice from experts aside — the officers of the CKPHA had absolutely no idea what it took to build and operate a quality hospital.